Expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema had the right to feel aggrieved that he was prevented from speaking at Marikana, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said on Thursday.
"The Bill of Rights gives me the right not to agree with what you say. But I have to respect your right to say it," said Motlanthe,
"If you do not give voice to your thoughts, it is impossible to know what they are."
Motlanthe was speaking at the inaugural Oscar and Rose Mpetha Memorial Lecture at Stellenbosch University on Thursday evening.
He said that today's trade unions were vastly different from those in Mpetha's time, saying unions these days were polarised and excluded some.
"Some representatives vacillate between management responsibilities and representation. This leads to political expediency and opportunism. The critical question is how we can bring workers and their representatives closer together."
Motlanthe side-stepped pressing questions about police conduct in the violence at Marikana by saying a commission of enquiry had been appointed to investigate the incident. However, he did provide background to how it came about that workers could be mobilised to go on strike outside established union structures.
He said the system of migrant labour was at the root of the problem.
These days mine workers were no longer compelled to stay in single sex compounds, but the live-out allowance they get was too small to cover their accommodation costs plus other expenses.
"The lure of doubling their salaries proved irresistible," he said.
He warned, though, that when the dust settled in a month or three, the workers who were currently pleased with what they thought was the increase they had negotiated would realise they were not really better off.
"That's why unions are necessary," he said.
"There can be no end in sight to the struggles of workers. Even under liberation workers will continue to fight for their rights under the rubric of trade unionism."
Motlanthe focused on three areas in which he said the Mpethas had made significant contributions. These were workers' rights, gender equality and non-racialism.