The biggest challenges facing the public sector unions are best illustrated by the many court battles between and among members of the Swaziland National Democratic Nurses Union (SWADNU).
For the nurses’ union, the infighting has gotten so ugly that the Secretary General, Sibusiso Lushaba, even attempted to take legal action against some of his own members whom he accused of conniving to have him fired at his job. Yes, the battle towards SWADNU’s elective congress have become that dirty.
In fact, so messy is the run down towards congress that the present leadership has twice been taken to court for violating the constitution or unfairly suspending members.
In the Shiselweni region, the battles are being led by a relatively unknown nurse, Menzi Nkomo, while in Manzini region the battles are led by a nurse of deep Christian faith, Calvin Dlamini.
It is Nkomo, a shop steward in the Shiselweni region, who is holding the present leadership by the scruff of the neck and determining the tempo towards congress.
If he is not routinely taking the union to court he is leading petitions against the leadership. Already there is blood on the SWADNU dance floor.
To contextualize the internal divisions at SWADNU one must understand the power play between former Secretary General, Nathi Kunene, and his then Deputy President, Bheki Dlamini, on the one hand and the current President, Bheki Mamba, and his Secretary General, Sibusiso Lushaba, on the other hand.
These four SWADNU heavyweights have been on each other’s throats for years now and their fights take different turns at different intervals. One minute one group has an upper hand and another they have lost it. The union, meanwhile, has become a casualty of two fighting elephants.
Bheki Dlamini is the more brazen one and does not hide his open contempt for Mamba and Lushaba. Often times he throws surreptitious digs at the two on social media.
A few years back Dlamini used his strategic position as a long serving leader in the Manzini region to organise a coup against Lushaba and successfully replaced him with Kunene, a stalwart of the union from the Shiselweni region.
Lushaba’s defeat, albeit with a thin margin, took the resentment he had with the Bheki Dlamini to another level. Even though Mamba was retained as President of the union, without Lushaba he was reduced to a ceremonial figure.
Meanwhile, Dlamini emerged as the new Deputy President who held sway in the union. In one fell swoop, the power dynamics within SWADNU had shifted full circle.
The bitterness between the two groups swelled when Lushaba quickly went on to contest and lead the Manzini region and therefore became a member of the National Executive.
To the new leadership, Lushaba was attempting to rule from the grave and not giving them a chance especially given that he now sat at the NEC of the union. Various attempts by then PUDEMO Secretary General Sikhumbuzo Phakathi to reconcile the two factions of SWADNU failed to bear any fruits.
In the ensuing years, Lushaba was to use his power as a rank and file member to build a political base in preparation to take back his position at the national level.
Indeed, he was to win as Secretary General in the union’s 2015 congress. The fact that Lushaba had long declaired he was ‘coming back’ after losing his position made some nurses suspect he had gotten entitled to leadership positions and planted bitterness that has come back to haunt him today.
In fact, nurses in the Shiselweni region where Kunene had built a strong base became hostile to his leadership. It was therefore not surprising that strong opposition to his rule has come from that region as embodied by Nkomo and his faction.
To their credit though, it is both Mamba and Lushaba that transformed the nurses union substantially.
In the past SWADNU used to be a timid church like union engaged in bread and butter issues and very averse to industrial action.
Thanks to Lushaba and Mamba, SWADNU has become a militant union that has completely dispensed with the apolitical and opportunistic leaders.
This could also be explained by the fact that SWADNU has benefited the most from the birth of a students Union that operates at tertiary level.
Members of the students union went on to radicalise SWADNU and slowly replaced the old apolitical members. The downside to this however is that these new members did not have any loyalty to the old guard.
When Lushaba left the employ of government yet continued to lead the union he should have known this was a powder keg waiting to explode.
When the government refused to engage in wage negotiations if he sat as a union representative his destructors tried to force him out but undermined the loyalty he still commands within the rank and file.
SWADNU insisting on making Lushaba sit in the negotiation table frustrated other public sector unions like NAPSAWU who felt nurses were delaying the negotiations. SWADNU meanwhile felt abandoned and isolated.
If anything, they were surprised their fellow unions actually shared government’s views about Lushaba’s participants in both the union and negotiation. When the Industrial court rejected SWADNU’s attempt to force Lushaba to sit and negotiate wages on behalf of nurses, this made worse an already untenable situation both within the nurses’ union and other public sector workers.
The relations between SWADNU and NAPSAWU went south from there. The nurses union was to later accuse NAPSAWU of being a board room union no longer comfortable with industrial action. This did not sit well with then NAPSAWU Secretary General Celmusa Tembe.
As the historically cordial relations between SWADNU and NAPSAWU degenerated it provided yet another ammunition for those who had long held bitterness against Lushaba and his President.
When allegations that the leaders had misappropriated money in the purchase of the union’s E13 Million property around Mbabane, and the subsequent claims of possible kickbacks that accrued to leaders, it became clear that the efforts to remove the leadership had become desperate and concerted.
As all this was going on a petition began to circulate that called for a forensic audit of the entire union finances and the accounting of monies that were allegedly deducted from members over the past four years.
The petitioners also wanted an explanation why the union’s financial audit reports were not qualified from among many other allegations. The petition also wanted justification for the huge expenditure of union funds during the lock down.
There were many other allegations contained on the petition that only served to underscore deep divisions in the union.
As the union prepares for congress two groups have emerged, one that supports Bheki Mamba, the current President and another that supports Calvin Dlamini, a rookie from the Manzini region. Already Lushaba has indicated he won’t contest the Secretary General position.
To ensure that former Secretary General Nathi Kunene does not make a comeback the Lushaba group now support Mayibongwe Masangane, the former Secretary General of the Swaziland National Union of Students and a member of the Communist Party of Swaziland. Masangane has previously led SWADNU as National Organiser.
The forces out to oust the Lushaba and Mamba leadership have different interests but are united in the ‘regime change’ agenda.
Others just want a fresh start in the union and accuse Mamba and Lushaba of having led for too long while others carry the historical bitterness emanating from how Kunene was ousted in the last congress.
Others have been convinced of financial impropriety even as Lushaba and Mamba protest their innocense. It is the ultimate coalescing of different interests and only the one who throws sticking mud will win. That, unfortunately, is the nature of congresses.
Evidence is not important in congresses all delegates need is to be sufficiently convinced someone did wrong and that is enough.
The worse part for Mamba is that the constitution does not seem to favour retaining of the status quo. This means unless there are constitutional changes and is then nominated from the floor he is a goner.
This could mean the end of the duo as prominent leaders in the labour movement and seal their fate in the union. There is a lot at stake for Mamba though.
If he loses the battles at SWADNU he may as well kiss his chances of leading TUCOSWA as its President goodbye.
Already many people were looking at him to replace Quinton Dlamini as President of TUCOSWA but if he cannot win his own union winning at the federationwill be a tall order.
Allegations that the SWADNU leadership is now manipulating delagates and processes to ensure a predetermined congress outcome are not so different to those that claim they did not register the E13 Million property in the name of the union—they are part of congress ‘package’ to remove a ‘regime’ by ‘all means necessary’.
The truth is the ultimate casualty in any contested congress.
With all said and done no one will win from the upcoming SWADNU Congress. If Bheki Mamba is retained as President he will come across as a Mugabe who has overstayed his welcome.
If Calvin wins he will inherit a deeply divided union and for a person of his shallow political acumen, he may quickly be suffocated and exhausted by the fights. If Mayibongwe wins he will help consolidate the CPS’s slow growth in the unions and its divisive agenda.
If Nathi wins he will rule with vengence and continue the viscous cycle of infighting between him and Lushaba group.
There is one thing that is sure to leave the congress the biggest loser though, it is the union itself.
NB: Read part three of our series on the battle for the soul of Tucoswa. This time we look at the problems in ATUSWA, NAPSAWU and the emergence of the CPS as a fifth column.