Greetings from Pretoria, South Africa:
Well day two of the NEHAWU triennial congress began with reports of snow in Johannesburg!
Sister Carole Mahelman of Unison – our UK sister union – was teasing me about snow following me overseas. She was a international guest at our 2005 convention in Winnipeg, where I opened convention by guaranteeing delegates the weather would be great all week. After it snowed on the Wednesday of our convention, I quit making weather predictions … forever!
Day two of the NEHAWU congress was very interesting. In no particular order the highlights included:
1. The 27-day public service strike was the subject of a three hour debate on day two. NEHAWU leadership took the 400-plus delegates through the framework agreement achieved by the 13 union coalition led by their parent labour body, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Delegates agreed that NEHAWU leadership would support signing the agreement and ending this, the longest ever public sector strike in South Africa’s history.
The deal provides a 7.5% wage hike (inflation is running just under 6% in South Africa). There have been major moves achieved in pay progression and the elimination of increments. Another major breakthrough is the guarantee that some 241,000 vacant positions (out of a total public service of over 1 million) will be posted and filled within the next 12 months. Finally, the agreement includes a significent bump up in housing allowance. South Africa has a housing crisis and such allowances are a regular part of bargaining.
What was incredible about the debate was the collective support for the notion that NEHAWU was part of a strong public sector union’s coalition and that this coalition must act as one. That it must be kept together at all costs.
The agreement does not meet all of their demands, but the 27-day strike was the reason improvements were gained since June 1st.
One delegate said that the era of government imposed collective agreement is over forever (this happened in a 1999 strike).
The level of debate was both passionate and very informed.
The other key issue was that all dismissed members (apparently there are hundreds) are reinstated as part of the tentative agreement.
The agreement is not yet signed, but NEHAWU leadership received the green light to do this as part of the coalition.
2. NEHAWU conventions are very different in terms of debate from the floor. A resolution or report gets introduced and the Chair then recognizes speakers by province. One speaker per province. There are nine provinces in South Africa and this format is followed:
It is usually (but not always) the leader of the province who speaks, using a handheld microphone that is brought into the crowd. Second time interventions from a province occur but are not the norm.
Once all provinces who wish to speak have done so, the Chair then summarizes the views of the crowd and declares a matter carried. If a region or delegate does not agree with the summary they speak up, but this has not happened much.
It is a very different system, but quite fascinating in terms of hearing from all regions and not letting any one dominate.
3. As a backdrop to the NEHAWU convention, the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) is meeting in a major policy conference. The ANC has ruled since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994. It has three partner groups, the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP). All three are separate entities but their coalition cooperates on candidates etc and has ruled for the past 14 years. It is a tension-filled relationship, as I first witnessed when I was here in 2003. Plenty of debate, plenty of questioning of government decisions, but very little questioning of the alliance itself.
Policy seems to be taking a backseat at their 1500 person conference as the “succession plan” dominates media coverage etc.
President Thabo Mbecki (the successor to South Africa’s first President, Nelson Mandela) is constitutionally prevented from seeking a third term as President. And it seems the ANC has no agreed to method for succession. Former Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, forced from office 2 years ago over scandal and criminal charges (charges he was cleared of) seems like labour’s choice to succeed Mbeki, but this is the subject of a lot of debate.
He will address the NEHAWU congress today.
4. Believe it or not, in addition to singing (very badly) I joined all international delegates in 15 minutes of dancing and song to open yesterday afternoon’s session! I cannot put into words the impact that this ever-present singing and dancing has on the proceedings. All delegates participate! I hope all cameras were put away during this session.