The violent protests at Lonmin's Marikana mine reflected an "exploding bomb" created by poverty and inequality, says Zwelinzima Vavi.
"We have warned over and over again that South Africa is sitting on a ticking bomb – the recent Marikana mine massacre was an exploding bomb, sending an alarm signal to us all, [saying] 'Wake up, do something about this situation'," the Congress of South African Trade Union's (Cosatu) general secretary said on Friday.
"That seems to be a very clear message, not just from the workers in Marikana, but across the mining industry."
Vavi was speaking at the annual summit of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) on the East Rand.
He said it was unsustainable for the country to maintain its current levels of inequality. Youth unemployment required particular focus.
"If we fail to provide these young people with the hope of work and an income, the consequences for us all will be catastrophic," he said.
"Very many of the unemployed youth should in fact be at school, acquiring skills and increasing their employability potential."
South Africa could not claim to have achieved the goals of the national democratic revolution when wealth was still unevenly distributed.
"The Freedom Charter ... and the Polokwane ANC conference resolutions are at one in rejecting neo-liberal, free-market policies," he said.
"They all insist that the state must intervene to plan the use of the country's resources in the interests of the people."
Vavi said more needed to be done in furthering education in the country, which was one of its "most powerful weapons in our struggle against poverty and inequality".
"We must retain our best teachers and provide professional support in order to improve the quality of education," he said.
"The salary structures of teachers must motivate them to remain in education and help us to lay the foundation to produce the knowledge [for] workers of the future." – Sapa