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South African activist Gati Malete has a traditional rallying cry that she shares with audiences wherever she travels.  “Amandla!” she shouts.  “Awethu!” is the exuberant reply.  Power is ours.

As the first woman treasurer of a union in her country, South Africa Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU) Gati Malete has a unique perspective on fighting privatisation and the progress of women’s rights in the South African labour movement.  Sister Gati recently spoke to delegates at both the Manitoba and British Columbia division conventions.

In 2002, CUPE began a partnership with SAMWU to organize and train workers in fighting the privatization of water, electricity, and garbage collection. 

The municipalities said that they did not have the capacity to deliver these services as the demand for improvements was so great following the apartheid era. But in reality, the services deteriorated even further under privatization,” said Malete.

Under the joint project with CUPE, a research team was able to expose the problems with the private contracts, making it easier to organize the workers and get management to recognize the union.

By 2009 the union has expanded by 10,000 members and re-municipalized most of the garbage collection and in 2010 the proposal to privatise electricity was defeated.  South African women, in particular, have been empowered as a result.

The gender committee took the lead on the project, so in addition to victories on privatization and organizing new members, womens’ participation has increased and SAMWU has made significant gains for women’s equality.

In the province where I come from, now we have six women as municipal managers, because women campaigned for that,” she says.

At its 2009 Congress, the union adopted a resolution requiring 50-50 gender equality by 2015 in representation for meetings and in union and municipal positions.  For every meeting that the union holds, one third of the representation must be women.  At the same time, the union adopted a comprehensive policy on sexual harassment that has now been tabled with the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) to be adopted in every municipal workplace. 

These are just some of the very proactive policies the union has taken to improve the representation of women,” says Malete.

It’s been a really good mutual exchange with CUPE,” she says.  “Although the scale and context of our struggles may be different, the issues are really similar.”