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Day one of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) Congress was a full one…..in no particular order, some observations:

1.  The public employees strike, involving almost one million workers is ongoing, though the corridor talk is that the parties are close to settlement.  The strike involves NEHAWU members who work in health care and education, as well as teachers, police, corrections and others.

The issues are money, increments and benefits.

2.  There are 452 members at the convention (222 women and 230 men).  The NEHAWU consitution speaks of the goals of gender parity.

3.  The theme of this eighth consitutional convention is “Consolidate the Union, Consolidate Working Class Power”.  NEHAWU is celebrating their 20th anniversary.

NEHAWU leaders talk openly about the long-term goal of a single public sector union in South Africa to consolidate bargaining power.

4.  South African trade union conventions are very unique….in addition to vigorous debate, music and song are prevelant throughout. I witnessed this 4 years ago at the Municipal Workers Congress (SAMWU).  The day begins with all delegates dancing and singing trade union songs.

Each speaker is welcomed with a chant/song, and all are thanked in a similar fashion.  It is an incredible sight and according to some UK delegates, a unique practise that they have only seen in Africa.

Can you imagine Claude and I leading CUPE members in song for a week?  Scary thought!

5.  Early in the convention there was a very powerful candlelight ceremony to remember all members (or members of their families) who have succumbed to HIV/AIDS.

This was very moving, and a testimony to the fact that South African unions, and many political leaders now openly acknowledge the AIDS pandemic, something that didn’t occur so openly even 10 years ago.

6.  There were many powerful speeches from NEHAWU and other trade union leaders, some memorable comments included:

“No struggle for liberation can be class neutral”.

“The national strike is for a living wage….and against income equality.  It’s a struggle for jobs and against poverty”.

“The growing unity of public sector unions is based on the experiences of the last two major public sector strikes, the 1999 and 2004 strikes.  A foundation is being laid for one union, one industry in the public service”.

7.  Some very sobering health care statistics:

South Africa has fewer than 7 doctors per 10,000 people.  Cuba has 65 doctors per 10,000 people.

South Africa spends 9% of the yearly GDP on health care, on the face of it, what ought to be enough to provide basic universal care.  But only 40% of the spending is spent on 40 million citizens receiving public health care, the remaining expenditures are for private care which serves about 7 million citizens!

South Africa still sees significant emigration of doctors and other health care professionals.

There are some 40,000 community health workers, established since 2004, most have grossly inadequate wages and working conditions.

Contracting-out and privatization are realities in South Africa, especially for support workers.

8.  NEHAWU membership has grown from 180,000 in 2004 to 210,000 today.

Many delegates talk openly about the apartheid struggle that ended in 1994.  They talk about increasing the number of members who vote as voting is their right and their responsibility.

While they are frustrated with government at the bargaining table, they talk passionatley about the struggle to gain their freedom and the need for political activism.

We’ll see what day two brings.

In solidarity,


(You can read yesterday’s South Africa update here.)