1. Today’s session began with the leadership advising they had to attend a meeting of the public sector unions coalition (17 unions in total). The strike was settled and the agreement will proceed to a vote.
2. International delegates were asked to bring brief greetings today. As we were introduced those unions that had written solidarity messages in recent weeks (including CUPE) were acknowledged and received a huge response from delegates. We should never underestimate the impact of such solidarity expressions. They are truly appreciated. In bringing greetings I spoke of our relations with NEHAWU, which go back to 1988, the year it began. I presented their President with a CUPE flag which was a big hit. I also presented a mounted NWTF poster and read the caption, “women strengthen our union”. This was also a big hit as gender representation issues are significant within NEHAWU. I shared with the delegation that their coalition approach to bargaining was truly inspiring, one we in Canada could learn from.
Finally, I formally invited them to send two delegates to our national convention this fall, an invitation they enthusiastically accepted.
3. The highlight of the day was an address by Deputy ANC leader Jacob Zuma. He is a rumoured presidential candidate and controversial political figure. The NEHAWU delegates gave him a rousing welcome and they are obvious supporters of Zuma. He spoke of the importance to the ANC - COSATU - SACP alliance. He talked extensively about the public sector strike pledging his support and relief that it has ended. He described the first decade of ANC rule as a honeymoon of sorts, but argued the second decade of which they are almost at the mid-point is critical for their post-apartheid movement. He also mentioned the inherent role unions must play in shaping a democratic South Africa. He urged labour to remain active within the ANC alliance as they are critical to it.
He entered the debate on President’s Mbeki’s succession arguing that the two term constitutional limit means he cannot stay on as ANC leader past 2009. This issue is in the news daily as it appears the succession plan for 2009 is an open debate with lots of jockeying.
Zuma’s address was fascinating, almost surgical on the leadership issue and quite sweeping in the key role labour must play in pulling South Africa out of poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
At the end of his address he led the crowd in song and dance which I can only describe as frenzied. Thank goodness this is not a Canadian tradition! It was truly an amazing sight, one I cannot describe in words.
4. Delegates spent much of the day in “commissions”, their term for workshops. The evening was a social event celebrating their 20th anniversary.
5. I finally learned what “robots” are in South Africa. For a few days I have heard our van driver talk of turning right or left at the next robot, but I could never see any of these “robots”. It turns out “robots” are traffic lights. No one can explain why this term has emerged but it is universally applied. (From now on I will have to advise Brother René Fortin to make sure he stops at all red “robots”, something he doesn’t always do!).
Final report will come later as this is the final day of the congress. A pretty amazing week.