Endless and costly internal court battles. Backstabbing. Deep seated divisions. Lawsuits. Threats of deaths. Alleged corruption. Careerism. Sexual abuse. Splinters. These, ladies and gentlemen, are but some of the words that best describe what has become of the country’s trade unions and their mother body, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA). How did it come to this though? Why are comrades cannabilising on the unions they worked hard to build?
What we learned from the death of renowned trade unionist Jan Sithole is that behind the facade of unity within the trade union movement there lies tension threatening to boil over and roll back the gains made by the birth of TUCOSWA.
It is not an exaggeration to say the trade union movement has begun to unravel and boy it’s scary! At the heart of these divisions is the battle for the control of what happens in the more monied public sector unions and by necessary extensions, the federation. The battles within the unions begin in the political parties, spill over to the shop floor where the shop stewards organise, and ultimately in the congresses where the unions derive their legitimacy.
The government, for her part, smiles in satisfaction and occasionally deepens the rifts by setting one union against the other or just planting her own proxy federations just to stir the pot at ILO conferences.
As they say in social media circles, it was always going to ‘end in tears’ because in truth the formation of TUCOSWA was just too good to be true. Even by world standards, merging unions and creating one federation is difficult and rare.
When the country’s two biggest federations, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) and Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL), collapsed to form TUCOSWA, and were later joined by the historically stand-alone union, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), this was by all accounts a rare feat lauded the world over.
Swaziland had finally lived true to the popular workers’ maxim, ‘one country one federation, one industry one union’. Even Karl Marx must have smiled in his grave seeing his call for ‘workers of the world to unite’ finally taking baby steps down in the southern tip of the African continent.
Eight years later, the very people who did everything to bring workers under one roof are today hell-bent in cannibalising their own unions and federation. The future of TUCOSWA is now at stake. The knives are drawn and the battles raging but can the organization survive the storm or will it wilt at the first test of character?
Unions and the long walk to unity
Swaziland is a country known to be very hostile to unions. This dates back to precolonial Swaziland but was taken a notch up when Sobhuza banned political parties and ‘other similar bodies’ in the now infamous 1973 decree.
In the aftermath of the decree, the King introduced the archaic and backward Ndabazabantu and the so called ‘liso lenkhosi’ to deal with industrial relations matters and secure royal interest in multinational companies. The idea of royal appointees to represent workers was conceived and recommended to the late king by Prince Masitsela.
However, workers continued to oppose the so called workers’ councils under the banner of SFTU, itself founded in 1971. The fires of trade unionism became too difficult to contain even by the royal family’s autocratic standards.
The early leaders of SFTU were middle class and white collar workers. For example, former University of Swaziland lecturer Nomthetho Simelane and former Prime Minister Obed Dlamini were standard Bank employees while Abel Dlamini and present day Swazi Bank Managing Director, Zakhele Lukhele, were almost on the brink of management when they led the federation.
These early leaders understood the importance of workers’ unity. But even as they tried to wage a fight for the right to organise the chilling effects of the 1973 decree meant that most trade unions were either rendered comatose, became defanged, or just died.
The labour movement went on a lull for a long time only to re-emerge again in the 80’s following the coming into effect of the Industrial Relations Act of 1980. This coincided with the birth of PUDEMO whose political program called for the formation of unions and other civil society organisations as ‘legal’ site of struggle, at least according to author Richard Levin.
Indeed, leading PUDEMO members like Dominic Mngomezulu went on to form the union of none academic staff at the University of Swaziland while other others like Dr Ray Russon and Maxwell Lukhele birthed what is today known as the National Public and Allied Workers Union (NAPSAWU).
Nomthetho Simelane helped form the Association of Lecturers and Academic Personnel (ALAP) at the University of Swaziland where she was now teaching. Dumsani ‘Shosholoza’ Khoza, Mandla Dlamini, Bonginkhosi IB Dlamini were tasked with forming a staff association and unions in the sugar belt.
Even Mario Masuku was thrust into national prominence as a leader of the bankers union, the forerunner of the Swaziland Union of Financial Institutions and Allied Workers (SUFIAW). In fact, Masuku’s first stint with jail happened while leading a bank workers’ strike in demand of a 15% increase back in 1988.
The state responded by throwing him and others in jail but was released four days later after bank workers threatened to march to the palace. Meanwhile, Jan Sithole had already established himself as a fierce trade unionist and leader of the Swaziland Agricultural Plantation and Agricultural Union (SAPWU) at Usuthu Pulp. These were by all accounts the golden days of the trade union movement.
Although there was little activity in the 1980’s, SFTU emerged as a stronger force in the 1990’s as shown by the nine-day strike it waged at the beginning of 1996 and two more mass actions in the same year leading to the famous “27 demands”. The success of the trade unions of the early to late 90’s owes to a number of factors.
First, SFTU benefited from the strategic positioning of PUDEMO leaders as managers and leaders in the sugar belt, the power base of SAPWU, SFTU’s anchor union. For example, PUDEMO Secretary General Bonginkosi IB Dlamini became an HR manager at Simunye, Mandla Hlatjwako started off as Human Resource Manager and later MD at Illovo while other leaders like Vusi Mnisi, Willie Matsebula, Dumsani DJ Dlamini also held senior positions and used their jobs to clandestinely make shop stewards work tenable.
Activists could afford to do union and political work without fear of losing jobs and could count on the tepid support from their bosses. This was the case even in the timber and pulp industry at Mhlambanyatsi where managers like Sabelo Dlamini were able to use their strategic role to make union life easy to the benefit and strength of SFTU. Dlamini is today exiled in South Africa.
Even at Usuthu the Personnel Manager was Dr Jerry Gule, a well-known human rights activist who never made union life difficult. All this was complemented by the work of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) whose members became foot soldiers in the mobilization for the 1996 stay away.
It was TUCOSWA acting Secretary General Mduduzi Gina who was to belatedly acknowledge the role of SWAYOCO in the success of the 1996 stay away especially in the factory to factory mobilisation. He acknowledged the organisation in the webinar organized to celebrate the life of Jan Sithole last week.
It is also important to point out the political atmosphere in South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of ANC had a spillover effect in Swaziland.
The general hype about the miracle next door galvanised political support internally and expanded the frontiers on what was possible in the kingdom too. King Mswati himself was still young and as an illegitimate outsider, he was still trying to assert his power base within the royal family. He was therefore still amenable to change.
The political pressure from Nelson Mandela and Swaziland being the odd one out in the region meant that he could bulk under pressure hence responded to the 27 demands by making an array of changes. But such euphoria could only be sustained for so long. The space for free trade union activity was to be constrained and squeezed in ways never seen before once the king had shuffled and reshuffled Prime Ministers until he found the right henchman in Barnabas Dlamini.
Once King Mswati had found his feet, gotten embolden as an autocratic leader and no longer fearful of being removed by warring factions of the royal family, he first tried to dilute the power of the trade unions by recruiting some of their spineless leaders like Themba Msibi and Jabulani Nxumalo and then went vicious with the more resolute lot. The restructuring of the economy and job losses were also unkind to SFTU and trade unions more generally.
Later, the Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL) was to be formed by some ‘dissident’ members of the SFTU undermining years of workers’ unity and power. Even though the concerns that led to the break-away of SFL were genuine, they however, turned to be ‘workerist’ and administrative than ideological and political.
It is for that reason that many saw the emergence of SFL as reactionary and a setback to unity. SFL did not cover itself in glory as it tried to confine the role of a trade unions within the parameters of the discredited tinkhundla system. This could be explained in part by the domineering (financial) power of SUFIAW who saw SFTU as too radical for their white collar members.
Because SUFIAW had money it had a bigger voice within SFL while its sister affiliates in the textile sector, for example, were nothing short of ‘orphan’ unions who relied on it for patronage. SFTU therefore could afford to go alone and still be powerful because it stood on the shoulders of the once powerful SAPWU and the public sector workers whose combined financial muscle and numbers made SFTU a force to reckon with.
However, restructuring, privatisation, and downright closure of such big multinational companies like Sappi led to job losses and undermined the financial standing of SFTU as they could no longer collect maximum subscriptions from unions. SAPWU itself never recovered from the neoliberal changes in the pulp, timber and sugar belt. To this day the union is a pale shadow of its former self. Slowly, SFTU began to crumble at the weight of its own previous success.
Internal strife and withholding of subscriptions by the public sector unions at the height of their fight did a huge blow to the federation and its capacity to organise and fight for workers rights.
By the year 2005 workers’ unity had become a scarce commodity as different factions of unions were scavenging over what was left of the federation. The high profile fall out of then SFTU President Africa Magongo and Sithole meant that the fissures in the union had become too open to paper through. Attempts were tried to reconcile the two federations but egos and political postures stood on the way.
Things were not made any easier when SFTU unions began to accuse their leadership of financial irregularities. In fact, so bad were SFTU relations with its affiliate in the public sector, particularly present day SWADNU and NAPSAWU, that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was asked to intervene.
The resultant report of COSATU’s fact finding mission was not flattering to the then leadership of SFTU, further straining possibilities of workers’ unity. However, the formation of the Labour Advisory Council, which became a uniting platform for the two federations (and SNAT), began to plant seeds of what would be achieved if workers spoke in one voice.
The retirement of Sithole as SFTU Secretary General heralded new beginnings and forged fresh relations in the two labour federations and the stand alone union, SNAT. It was not surprising thereforethat in 2012 the unions had decided that a new federation to be called TUCOSWA was necessary.
The birth of TUCOSWA, to use the words of its former President, Barnes Dlamini, was built on hard compromises and ‘massaging of egos’ of some trade union leaders who tried their best to derail or undermine it. Take for example the posture adopted by SNAT’s then President Sibongile Mazibuko. Mazibuko’s fall out with her then Secretary General Muzi Mhlanga, almost led to SNAT withdrawing from TUCOSWA days after affiliating. It also polarised SNAT and created factions that still haunt the union to this day.
Mazibuko, the so called caudillo of teachers, was in the news for all the reasons after the birth of TUCOSWA. If she was not attacking her own comrades she was casting aspersions against her fellow SNAT leaders. TUCOSWA appeared hopeless and clueless on how they would deal with her and seemed content in reprimanding her in fearful whispers.
Sibongile, SNAT and the battle in TUCOSWA
To understand why it was difficult for SNAT to affiliate to TUCOSWA one needs to first understand why it never affiliated to any of the two federations in the first place. SNAT is traditionally a militant organisation with a proud history of struggles that have shaped our politics as we know them today.
When the late King Sobhuza II banned political parties in 1973 it was the SNAT led teachers’ strike of 1977 that forced the monarchy to engage in political reforms that saw the introduction of the Tinkhundla system of governance the following year. History records that it was not the monarch’s benevolence but the teacher’s strike, led by the likes of former DPM Albert Shabangu, which forced the authorities to consider a form of public representation in the overall governance of the country.
SNAT, however, emerged in the late 80’s as a pale shadow of its former self, in part because the state began to recruit trade unionists into power and therefore set in motion decadent leaders and naked opportunism within the union movement as a whole. It is also important to mention that SNAT leaders were worry about joining either SFTU or SFL because they feared ‘high’ subscriptions fees for their union.
Traditionally, SNAT has been led by members of the banned Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC). Towards this end, we can count the likes of Kati Masuku, Phineas Magagula, Simon Makhanya, and Sibongile Mazibuko from among many others. The influence of the party is still strong to this day and some of the fights for the control of the union can be traced back to party politics and loyalties.
Given the size of its assets (double those of both SFTU and SFL combined), a strong support base (covering roughly 80 percent of all teachers) SNAT saw herself as a federation lite. The fact that SNAT was banned as a union and unbanned as an association brought in a myopic false pride within teachers who saw themselves as ‘professionals’ and therefore different to the more industrial unions, a craft union if you like.
In the early days of TUCOSWA Mazibuko attempted to withdraw her union from the federation after claiming that her Secretary General, Mhlanga, had paid a lot of money to buy T shirts for TUCOSWA against her union mandate. In fact so dramatic was the fall out between Mazibuko and her fellow leaders at TUCOSWA that a press conference had to be called by then TUCOSWA President to address a slew of allegations Mazibuo had made about Mhlanga and the federation.
Later on, the unity in TUCOSWA was to be tasted when Mazibuko led SNAT on a protracted unprotected strike against the advice of her federation and some public sector unions. Despite agreements by SNAT leaders at an NGC to suspend the strike, Sibongile went ahead because she was enjoying the hero status she was getting from frustrated teachers. Other public sector unions stayed away from the strike fearing reprisals from the state because the strike was unprotected.
It is on a record that during a teacher mass meeting Mhlanga informed teachers that the strike had been suspended but Sibongile publicly contradicted him and made Mhlanga look like a sell out. The state responded viciously and fired teachers en mass. It was Mazibuko who turned around and went to the authorities cap in hand to beg that teachers be reinstated. At that very point, the government figured that the union leaders had a price.
The subsequent failure of teachers to get a fair wage increase even after months of strikes owes in part to the sins of the leaders of yester years and the price they were willing to sell their own union.
It was again Mazibuko who then went on a tirade claiming her union would no longer support TUCOSWA because ‘they had not assisted them during their (ILLEGAL) strike’. It is fair to say that Mazibuko stretched TUCOSWA to its limits and tested the patience and tolerance of her fellow leaders. In a last ditch attempt to drives wedges between SNAT and TUCOSWA, Mazibuko then decried the money they were paying as subscription to the federation. If TUCOSWA thought they had withered the Sibongile storm they were not prepared for the battles at NAPSAWU, SWADNU and ATUSWA.
NB: Follow part two for an analysis of the crisis at SWADNU, ATUSWA, NAPSAWU and the battle for the leadership of TUCOSWA.