In the late 80’s, a group of Swazis secretly went on a political mission in Europe. Some were from the University and some had just finished and working for both the public and private sector. Among the countries visited was the then East German and Russia. This trip was facilitated and funded by the ANC.
Among those who went on this political expedition was former University of Swaziland sociology lecturer Ray Russon, former Swaziland Revenue Authority Commissioner of Domestic Taxes, Maxwell Lukhele, former Chief of Staff at the Public Protector’s office, Bonginkosi Dlamini, former Illovo Managing Director Mandla Hlatjwako from among others.
At some point, these activists had the honour of addressing the Central Committee of the then Soviet Union, the highest decision making body of a world superpower.
It was in East Germany where Lukhele in particular spent some time studying and learning about trade unions and organizing workers more generally.
Later on, Lukhele came back and worked with Russon, who was at the time employed as a Personnel officer—Public Service Regulation in the public service. It was while government employees that the idea of a union for civil servants was conceptualised by Russon with the help of Lukhele.
To sidestep the draconian provisions of the infamous 1973 decree (that had banned political parties and ‘other similar bodies’) Lukhele and his contemporaries formed a civil servants association not just to make it acceptable to the state but also to a majority of Swazis who were shit scared of associating with anything that could be seen as challenging the then Liqoqo reign of terror.
The idea of a union for government employees had always been in the works though. However, it came to fruition thanks to Russon and Lukhele who had discovered that the public service regulations allowed civil servants to form an association of their choice.
A constitution was quickly drafted and a network of activists recruited to serve in the union leadership.
Russon became the founding chairperson deputized by former Private Secretary to the king, Sam Mkhombe, while Lukhele became the founding Secretary General. Former University of Swaziland lecturer Dumsile Mavuso became the designated Treasurer.
Just like that, the Swaziland National Association of Civil Servants (SNACS), the forerunner to the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union (NAPSAWU), was formed. The union was subsequently launched at a public park in Mbabane.
Right from birth, NAPSAWU had a loan scheme named ‘Bunye Betfu, Buhle Betfu’, a foresighted move that has proven useful in luring potential members to the union. In the ensuing years, the idea of a loan scheme was to morph into a burial scheme and later the buying of property for the organization.
Indeed, Lukhele and his comrades had not gone to East Germany for nothing, they have NAPSAWU to look at with pride. The achievements of the organization speak for themselves.
In the same breadth, those early leaders must be wondering if they risked their lives only for the present generation to spit on their hard work and sacrifices.
Today you can’t talk to any NAPSAWU leader from branch to national level without being told of its suspended former President, Quinton Dlamini, either negatively or positively. That is how polarised the union is.
But the signs were always there except many believed the organization was strong enough to withstand them. Today, however, it is clear that NAPSAWU and its former President are in a toxic relationship and, like a crumbling marriage, both want to get out of the union having inflicted as much harm to the other as possible.
A toxic history: NAPSAWU and Quinton
To understand the present problems of NAPSAWU one must go back to 2010 and read the organizational report prepared by its then Secretary General, Vincent Dlamini and a political report prepared by his then President, Aubrey Sibiya.
Both these reports were presented at the organisation’s congress held at Mananga College. It was here that Vincent suggested that the organization was now beset by ‘members of members’ and hinted that some people were flirting with the idea of a splinter union. He then went on to accuse some leaders of attempting to style the organization in their own image.
“The congress must respond to the tendency whereby the union members refer to the national executive as ‘the union’ without counting themselves as the ‘union.’…This ‘insurance unionism’ syndrome has a crippling effect on the union in terms of its capacity to respond to challenges at the workplace, nationally and internationally,” Vincent warned.
Even though cryptic in his articulation, Vincent laid bare what he had observed to be a destabilizing tendency growing in his union and described, without mentioning a name, traits associated with Quinton and his acolytes.
Sibiya, meanwhile, was more forthright about the problems of the union. He told delegates his leadership had noted what he described as ‘charlatan’ behaviors.
Instead of focusing on important issues of the union Sibiya reported that his executive committee had been busy dealing with “the shenanigans of some elements within the union who want to break away and form a splinter”.
It is fair to say Dlamini and Sibiya came to the leadership of the union already not in Quinton’s good books, who was a local shop steward and a former Secretary General of the organization at the time. The idea of a splinter, even though associated with him, proved by time not to be true.
The main tension between Quinton and Vincent in particular, was their style of leadership. Quinton, who had led the organization for a while before going on a study break in 2007, was considered a more ‘hands on’ person, in touch with every detail of the organization from local right up to the national level.
Vincent, however, preferred allowing shop stewards to deal with issues at the local level while he deals with national issues. To Vincent, Quinton’s style of leadership was nothing short of micromanagement and in fact disarming local leaders from learning and growing in their own right. To the rank and file, however, Quinton was selling himself as a ‘hard working’ leader in touch with every nook and cranny of the organization. For this he was loved.
The 2010 congress also come at a back of allegations that Sibiya and his leadership were trying to force down a controversial burial scheme to the union. At some point, people aligned to Quinton tried to remove Vincent as Secretary General but he weathered the storm and retained his position uncontested.
Sibiya, however, lost to Quinton as President of the union. The outcome of that congress set in motion an antagonistic yet complementary relationship between Quinton and Vincent. The tensions within NAPSAWU were not made any easier by the political alignment the two had within their parent movement.
For the next three years the two worked with harmony but the rift grew even larger. Three years later, many within the union had seen that the organisation would not survive the ‘member of member’ culture that was growing unabated.
In the 2013 congress, Quinton was thought to stand down from his position but he eventually got elected unopposed after contenders withdrew in the last minute.
Dlamini’s win was not without controversy though. There were disagreements on whether he was constitutionally allowed to stand for leadership to a point that an independent committee was set up to look at the issue.
The committee’s findings were that there were gaps in the constitution and that until they were filled Quinton was eligible to stand for any position. The Times was to later report that even though the committee’s decision was accepted many members were unhappy.
“This must be likened to a court case. The judgment may not be acceptable but all litigants have to accept it,” Vincent was quoted saying by the newspapers. Quinton assumed his new term of office already leading an organization unhappy with his leadership.
To fully appreciate how Quinton has become a polarising figure in the organization one must be able to appreciate that when the constitution bars him from contesting one position he jumps to another hence he has been in perpetual office for the longest time. This has not won him many friends in the union.
But the true nature of how unhappy members were with him can best be illustrated by his humiliation when he attempted to contest for the Secretary General position against against a ‘new comer’, Celumusa Tembe. Again here, Quinton had move from President to Secretary General just to sidestep term limits of the constitution.
In the 2016 congress he managed to get 90 votes to Tembe’s 102. It would have been tolerable to lose to someone else but not to Tembe whom Quinton knew to be a close friend to his ‘nemesis’, Vincent.
Quinton went back to his base as a regional leader of the union to plot ‘revenge’ against the putsch. For its part, the new leadership also wanted a clean break from Quinton’s polarizing power and influence in the union.
Their first strike was to enquire about the purchase of the union’s property around Ngwane park. Quinton was accused of having purchased the property without the consent of the executive of the union. He was quickly served with a letter of suspension on April 5, 2018 signed by Tembe.
“I am directed to instruct you that the National General Council of February 1, 2018, took a decision to suspend you. This decision was subsequently confirmed by the mid – term conference on March 1, 2, 2018. Your suspension is in relation to your role in the purchase of Portion 25 of Farm Trelawney Park, when you held office of the president of the union,” read the letter in part.
To make matters worse is that the union then reported the matter to the police and the Anti- Corruption Commission (ACC). The main bone of contention on the house turned-union-offices is that the union claims it was forced to pay over a Million for a property they should have cost half that amount.
They blame this on a controversial agreement entered into between Quinton and the owner. The union also contends that the deed of sale was done by Quinton alone without any other executive members.
Quinton could obviously not take all this lying down. First, he went to court to reverse his suspension. Then he went for a political war. What troubled him the most was that if there is any wrongdoing on his executive’s part then why was he the only one singled out for the suspension?
He also protested his innocence and argued that it was in fact a resolution of NAPSAWU congress back in 2010 to buy the property. According to him, an expedition for such started nine years ago but the funds were not sufficient enough to purchase the house. “On or about the month of September 2012, I heard about a house that was about to be auctioned for failure to settle a debt and the owner wanted someone to buy her out and proceed with the bond,” he told a reporter.
But Quinton’s fight back was not just confined to legal route or protesting his innocence in the press. He also began to take on the leadership politically and in the process divided the union into two factions; one loyal to him and another to the leadership. From there on the union has been internally paralysed.
As things stand he is suing the union for Millions for defamation. This has embroiled the organisation in costly litigation that continues to divide the union.
But within the union, the ground has shifted against him as seen by the last congress which refused to lift his suspension. Meanwhile, members aligned to Quinton have collapsed the union from within.
To show the destabilising effect of this issue, consider the local branch of NAPSAWU at the Central Transport Authority (CTA) which attempted to force government not to close the Trading Account for the CTA as per Circular No.1 of 2020/21, which the union viewed as unlawful.
The Circular was issued by the Principal Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, Khangeziwe Mabuza, allegedly without prior consultation with the union as per the Recognition Agreement.
The court agreed with the NAPSAWU but a faction under the influence of Quinton came to challenge the union on this issue. This brought fresh turmoil and continued the mudslinging within the organisation.
Those who oppose NAPSAWU’s posture on the CTA trading account claim that it is in fact a vehicle for corruption. They point to the latest Auditor General’s report to buttress their point and feel that NAPSAWU l, whose current leadership is based at the CTA, has hitched its wagon to corruption.
The recognition agreement is a smokescreen, they allege, with the real target being the trading account from which some union members profit.
At the Trade Union Congress (TUCOSWA) level, Quinton has banded together with the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT)’s Mbongwa Dlamini who is now earmarked to succeed him as President of the federation.
Quinton’s distractors want the current TUCOSWA Deputy President, Bheki Mamba, to lead the federation. Because Quinton is not favoured by age and position at work to stand for any leadership position at TUCOSWA, he now wants to preserve his legacy by making Mbongwa the heir apparent.
While many of Quinton’s enemies think he is a mere extension of Communist Party’s Kenny Kunene it is often forgotten that it was him who employed Kunene as an office clerk for the union. It could very well be that he is the dog that moves the tail not the other way around.
His relationship with Kunene goes deeper than it is understood and credit to both of them they have everyone on a panic mode. The CPS is growing slowly one union at a time and Quinton has an entire union focused on fighting him and he is enjoying it. After all, he has nothing to lose.
Meanwhile, NAPSAWU leaders should probably go dust the reports presented in 2010 by Vincent and Sibiya and reflect if they are not to blame for not heeding the warnings contained there. Answers to building the union afresh are in those reports.
NB: Ntando Maphalala is a freelance journalist