If the formation of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) was historic then the birth of the Amalgamated Trade Union of Swaziland (ATUSWA) was nothing short of a miracle.
The collapse of up to eight unions to give birth to ATUSWA is an achievement unequalled in the country’s trade union history.
This union could not have come at a perfect time than during the feel good moment created by the birth of TUCOSWA and the general euphoria that the country’s working class movement had finally come of age.
Unions can look back with pride that July 7, 2013 will go down as the day workers in the Manufacturing, Processing, Mining, Quarrying, Commercial, Security, Hotel, Catering, Service, and Textile and Apparel Industries came together to launch ATUSWA and sent shivers down the spines of Taiwanese textile bosses down in the Industrial hub of Swaziland.
It feels like yesterday when former rival leaders from the Swaziland Manufacturing and Allied Workers Union (SMAWU), Swaziland Amalgamated Trade Union (SATU) and Swaziland Processing Refining and Allied Workers Union (SPRAWU) met for drinks and braii at a lodge in Manzini beaming with smiles and drinking themselves silly convinced years of negotiations for a merger had finally come through.
Looking back, those were wasted beers!!
It was in this braii, which was also SATU Secretary General Frank Mncina’s birthday, where tensions on who would lead the new union were ironed out with finality.
It was now going to be smooth sailing going forward, or so we all believed. No one was more invested in the ATUSWA project than the National Union of Metalworkers of South African (NUMSA).
This South African union did everything humanely possible to facilitate the smooth birth of ATUSWA. In fact, NUMSA invested up to half a Million to ensure ATUSWA could walk and talk seconds after birth.
In truth, the formation ATUSWA was as much necessary as it was an idea whose time had come. After all, it was the deplorable conditions in the textile sector that demanded a union of ATUSWA’s statue.
Historically, the clothing and textile industry have been the cesspit of the worse forms of worker exploitation. Employers in this sector are hostile to unions having been spoilt by the corrupt relations they had with then Minister of labour, Lutfo Dlamini.
It was Dlamini who did all he could to protect the Taiwanese bosses in the textile sector and allowed them to get away with murder especially regarding payment of decent wages, provision of housing and medical aid to workers. This was more so given that the textile sector employs the most vulnerable and unskilled workers and the need for a union to protect them very necessary.
It therefore must have been sweet news to many workers to learn of the birth of ATUSWA but little did they know that they needed to hold their excitement.
History of the textile sector
The textile and garment factories are located mainly in the Matsapha Industrial town, which is the main business site and the hub of industrial activity in Swaziland.
Prior to Swaziland qualifying for the AGOA benefits, the textile industry was not a major contributor to the country’s GDP.
The industry suffered from a lack of local quality inputs and was not protected from competing producers in South Africa.
This led to Swaziland becoming a captive market for South African exports. Swaziland’s consumers were serviced by South African retail clothing chain stores such as Truworth, Edgars and Tru Pep.
With AGOA becoming law in May 2000 in the United States, Swaziland became a beneficiary a year later. AGOA led to a sharp increase in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the clothing and textile industry, creating thousands of jobs.
The government embarked on a programme of decentralisation of the textile industry to ensure that even rural areas benefit from the emerging industry hence the establishment of textiles in areas like Nhlangano and Siphofaneni.
Various additional production sites were earmarked for places such as Ebuhleni, Mpaka and Matsanjeni.
Rural-based firms, however, faced serious problems relating to lack of developed infrastructure and high operating costs. This meant that the industry is dependent on foreign investors whose motives are purely based on profits and not on development considerations.
Equally problematic in this sector are the poor quality jobs characterised by a lack of job security and low levels of skill acquisition.
The industry as a whole faces a host of difficulties ranging from unfavourable exchange rates to uncertainties with regard to the availability of preferential markets in the future.
Even worse, the expiry of the Agreement on Clothing and Textiles at the end of 2004 had a severe impact on the industry.
The main organizing unions in the sector has been fragmented into two unions, SPRAWU and SMAWU. Before the birth of TUCOSWA, SPRAWU affiliated with SFTU while SMAWU went with SFL.
Both these unions had little power in the face of the combined might of the state and the bosses in the textile sector but to their credit they always put up a fight. It became normal for workers to hold random strikes but would all be put down by the police.
Unlike unions who organise professional government employees, workers in the textile sector are blue collar and at the cutting edge of capitalist exploitation.
For this reason, unions here are more radical and militant. It was such conditions that saw the emergence of Wander Mkhonza as SPRAWU Secretary General, succeeding Mduduzi Gina, who is today TUCOSWA acting Secretary General. From the rural villages of Nhlangano, Mkhonza has risen to become the all powerful Secretary General of ATUSWA and a man on whose shoulders the entire union has stood for good and for worse.
ATUSWA breaks up
ATUSWA’s rise was as quick as its ultimate collapse and thanks in part to a combination of factors like the lingering opportunism, thirst for power and TUCOSWA’s indecisiveness.
To explain the seeds that led to the problems currently engulfing the organisation one must go back to the well meaning yet fatally mistaken South African and Swazi activists based in South Africa who thought SATU’s Frank Mncina would be the heir apparent way before ATUSWA was formally born.
As everyone gassed up Mncina about his upcoming position none counted on Mkhonza as the man who would appear from nowhere and scupper all plans.
In the meeting called to agree on the leaders of the new union, it was Mkhonza, not Mncina, who was favoured to lead as the new Secretary General, upsetting plans agreed behind the scenes in South Africa.
This planted seeds of bitterness within some of the union leaders even though this was suppressed by compromises that were made to have all the Secretaries of the dying union employed full time.
In the end, Mkhonza became the Secretary General, Zweli Sihlongonyane the first Deputy Secretary while Mncina became the second Deputy Secretary. For a while the trio seemed to be working smoothly but behind the curtains war was brewing.
It was also agreed that SATU offices would house the new union and that everything would be centralised in Manzini, Mbabane and Nhlangano to ensure effectiveness but also to reduce the financial drain caused by rentals.
It was not sooner that the very hosting of ATUSWA at the former SATU offices started to cause problems. As if problems about office space were not enough then the secretariat imploded.
Mkhonza’s fellow leaders started to accuse him of presenting a Secretariate report to the National Executive Committee without consulting other Secretariat members . So serious was the infighting within the secretariate that the core business of the union got affected.
When it became clear that the organisation could not resolve its problem amicably it was agreed to seek help from TUCOSWA. This was by all accounts a blunder because it escalated ATUSWA’s problems to be the federation’s headache and in the process ruined relationships between then Secretary General, Vincent Ncongwane, and Mkhonza.
At some point vicious emails were exchanged between the two with Ncongwane accusing Mkhonza of being unreasonable and dictatorial while Ncongwane himself was accused of interference and incompetence. We can say, with benefit of hindsight, that the two are not the best of comrades.
From then on the implosion escalated into disintegration. The first union to withdraw from ATUSWA was SATU as its leaders decided to revive its old status and come out of the ATUSWA marriage.
Strangely, instead of TUCOSWA helping the union to find each other they allowed SATU to affiliate with them. Then the Swaziland Commercial Workers Union (SCAWU) led by Mkhonza’s first Deputy Secretary followed suit and withdrew from ATUSWA.
Again here, the union was allowed to affiliate with TUCOSWA. At this point ATUSWA was haemorrhaging and no one seemed to know how to help the situation.
Then came the long court battles by former leaders of SMAWU who now wanted to revive their old union claiming they never agreed to collapse into ATUSWA. The court rejected their application and affirmed that they resolved to collapse into ATUSWA and in the process exposed the opportunism within SMAWU leaders.
Government has not been an uninterested bystander in this. If anything, rather than play a neutral role, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security issued communication to employers that its preferred group constitutes the “legitimate leadership” of the SMAWU.
The pinnacle of the ATUSWA implosion happened when its first President, Justice Mtsetfwa, lost his job and continued to lead the union. He was told he will now only finish his term but would not be allowed to come back something that didn’t sit well with him. When this was raised he accused Mkhonza of orchestrating his removal yet he was also not employed yet was a full time union employee. This led to Mtsetfwa being suspended, triggering his own attempt to revive his old union.
As all of this was happening The Eswatini Economic Improvement Workers Union (SEIWU), a yellow union organized under the employer-aligned FESWATU federation, struck arrangements with Montigny that all workers should become SEIWU members by default, a complete violation of workers’ right to freely join unions of their own choosing.
When ATUSWA began organizing at Montigy, the company sued it for engaging in unlawful recruiting practices and holding meetings with prospective members and won a restraining order preventing the union from conducting activities at or near company property.
Today ATUSWA is a skeleton of its old self because she was not allowed to crawl, walk then run. If anything, the union was beset by fights very early in its life.
All this has come as sweet news to government and employers because in truth ATUSWA was just too scary to every employer. Today the union is forced into costly litigation with its own members while also waging a war with Taiwanese-owned FTM Garments who have taken the union to court suing for alleged loss of production for four days and damages to property following a picket two years ago.
It is not known if ATUSWA has the stamina to fight government, employers and their members all at once.
Meanwhile, as TUCOSWA goes to congress it will have to contend with the mess it allowed to fester at ATUSWA. No group of workers deserve a strong union than the one ATUSWA organises. If anything, the success of TUCOSWA will be measured by how much it has been able to help improve the working conditions of its most vulnerable members—textile workers. For this reason, allowing ATUSWA to implode is a dent to the collective conscious of all leaders of TUCOSWA.
In the meantime, Mkhonza is posed to become an influential figure within TUCOSWA during the upcoming congress because he is not afraid of picking political battles and fighting them to the end. Those who undermine him do so at their peril. He has already demonstrated in his union that when he fights he fights till the end.
In fact it is not clear if the very resignation of former TUCOSWA Secretary General Vincent Ncongwane is not in part because of his fall out with Mkhonza. We may never know. What we do know however, is that everyone must watch out for the ‘Zulu’ man from Nhlangano, the coming TUCOSWA congress may be the day he is crowned as the King maker.
*Additional reporting by Ulibambe Lingashoni editorial team
NB: Follow the next edition of the analysis of the state of the trade unions towards TUCOSWA congress in December. Read Part IV on NAPSAWU and its battle with its former president Quinton Dlamini and what this means for the upcoming Congress.