South Africans are "rapidly forgetting" the traditions created during the fight for democracy, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Wednesday.
"We are rapidly forgetting the traditions of our movement, which valued service to the people above any thought of personal advancement," Vavi said in Johannesburg.
"The squalid morality of the capitalists, based on me-first and survival of the fittest, is seeping even into our own revolutionary movement, dragging in its wake huge problems of factionalism and even assassination of opponents and whistle-blowers."
Vavi was speaking at a University of SA lecture in memory of former justice minister Abdullah Omar.
He said a black elite had emerged out of apartheid to create "an oasis of opulence" for themselves.
"They have access to world-class hospitals thanks to private health care. Their kids play on the same rugby fields as descendants of the Oppenheimers and Ackermans of this world."
This group was becoming arrogant and growing dangerously powerful.
However, the country's service delivery protests and labour strikes were a sign that the poor were not a domiciled or subservient class, Vavi said.
"They have chosen fighting as opposed to subservience, resistance as opposed to submission. Which side are you going to be on?" he asked.
He said South Africans achieved a "political breakthrough" in 1994, but failed to achieve a similar breakthrough in economic transformation 18 years on.
"Inequality has now risen to a level that has made us the most unequal society in the world."
Multinational mining monopolies were making billions of rands in profits thanks to employees exposed to unhealthy and dangerous conditions kilometres underground.
He said rock-drill operators at Lonmin's platinum mines performed the most dangerous job in the world.
"They face death every time they go down the shaft. Yet, before the latest increase which some of them have now won, their monthly earnings were just R5600."
By comparison, Lonmin's financial officer earned R10-million a year, he said.
On 16 August, 34 striking Lonmin workers were shot dead in a confrontation with police, during a strike for a monthly wage of R12 500.
"Millions of others" such as domestic, farm, and hospitality industry workers and security guards earned less than miners.
He said most people had begun to see South Africa as the world's strike capital.
"The increasing worry is that most of these protest actions are turning violent."
Vavi said nearly 50 percent of Congress of SA Trade Unions members believed violence should be part of the bargaining process.
"So now the mentality is that if you want a speedier response, there must be something burning. This is not a trade union problem. This is the challenge that South Africa as a whole must deal with."