I can’t help but be on the side of the unions fighting for their rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere. I am pro-union. And I am pro-business. I see no contradiction in this. As a South African (now working in the US) I saw how trade unions helped people and how they led the fight against injustice. And I saw first-hand how good companies partner with trade unions and how they believe in trade unions as much as the unions themselves. I am always fascinated by so many US businesses being anti-unions. It need not be like this.
For the next few days I will tell you about my own experience in becoming a trade unionist in South Africa. I always say I am an ex-unions. But I am not. You can never be an ex-unionist. I am with my brothers and sisters fighting for their rights and protecting those workers who need protection against exploitation. We need them and business need them – sustainable businesses that is…
One note: We unionist in South Africa call each other Comrade. Nothing to do with communism. Just part of the legacy of fighting Apartheid and fighting injustices. So here we go – the first part of my story as a trade unionist. Maybe you’ll understand why I support the unions – I am biase because of my experience. They were my home and made me fit into the new South Africa. I am forever grateful to all my Comrades and what they gave to me.
I wasn’t born to be an activist or a trade unionist in South Africa. Quite the opposite, really. I was born to be the stereotypical ‘good, racist Afrikaner’ in Apartheid South Africa. My family supported Apartheid and all of them worked for the Apartheid regime at some stage in their lives.
My dad was a Brigadier in the South African Prison Services, and one of his last assignments was to look after political prisoners at Pollsmoor prison during the last few years of Apartheid. Both my sisters worked at the prison services and married guys who worked at the prison services. And my brother worked for the prison services on Robben Island – where Nelson Mandela was jailed.
I grew up in a home that did everything the Apartheid government wanted us to do. We were part of the Dutch Reformed Church – the Apartheid government in prayer. We watched rugby – then the sport of the white Afrikaner. I went to school at Paarl Gymnasium – one of the best Apartheid schools in South Africa. I attended the University of Stellenbosch – the ‘brain trust’ of the Apartheid policies and politics. We read the Apartheid government approved newspapers and watched their TV. I benefited from the education they provided and the money they paid my dad. I was made for a life supporting and working for the Apartheid government.
Somewhere along the line things didn’t work out the way they planned. I became everything that Apartheid was against – an activist with a social conscience who loves being an ‘African’ on the global stage. Instead of being the man they wanted me to be, I became the man I wanted to be. It hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t always been fun. But it always felt right. From Stellenbosch to Seattle, Mali to Monterrey, and Lusaka to London – no matter where the road took me, it always felt right, and it always felt as if I belonged.
That’s the beauty of life – you can be who and what you want to be no matter where you come from.
I got my big break – an interview with Gordon Young for a job as Developmental Economist / Researcher at the LRS (Labour Research Services). The LRS was the leading trade union support organization in South Africa. Well respected by overseas donors and at the center of policy making in the trade union movement. And it played a huge role in the anti-Apartheid movement during the struggle years.
Of course I knew nothing about all this when I got the call from Gordon Young. Hey, I applied for a job that was advertised in the wrong newspaper. And I was only a minor player in the anti-Apartheid movement at my university. How was I supposed to know who they were? I would have thought that it had something to do with taxes if someone mentioned the LRS to me.
But I managed to wing it at the interview. Gordon and myself did not hit it off straight away. I think that he thought I was a bit of a lightweight. He was right of course, but he also realized that I knew research methodology inside out. And that, combined with the lack of competition, got me through to the final round of interviews. With the LRS partner – NACTU – that I will be working with.
Again, I knew nothing of NACTU. Absolutely nothing. Thanks to my Apartheid education, I was never taught anything about trade unions in South Africa – not even at university. Never mind the smaller of the three trade union federations.
My initial research also let me down. I thought NACTU stood for the National Azanian Council of Trade Unions. It made sense. NACTU was closely aligned with the black consciousness movement and had close ties with organizations such as the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) – two of the dominant black consciousness organizations in the fight against Apartheid. But I was wrong – although they were somewhat aligned with the PAC, NACTU stood for the National Council of Trade Unions. And their members had the freedom to choose who they wanted to support politically.
But I didn’t do that much research, thinking that I can wing it again as I did with Gordon. All I knew was that NACTU was a trade union federation and that the job would focus on supporting them with research.
Gordon told me I was to meet Cunningham in Johannesburg. If he liked me I would get the job as he would indirectly be my boss. Hey, they pay my salary – I just work for the LRS.
I started picturing Mr Cunningham. He sounded like a typical middle-aged white English guy – most likely from the ‘old country’ – England.
I got on the plane to Johannesburg from Cape Town to meet Mr Cunningham at the NACTU offices. Grabbed a taxi from the airport and off I went to Fox Street in the center of Jo’burg. I was shitting myself as I have only been to Jo’burg a few times, and the horror stories people told me sounded like something from Gotham City – muggings, car hijacking, stabbings etc. Not the place for a young white boy from a small town. But I made it to the NACTU offices in one piece.
As I entered the NACTU offices I immediately realized that I have never seen so many black people in one office. Everyone was black. It was a bit of a cultural shock – but a pleasant one. At last I found a place that looked like it represented South Africa. Anti-Apartheid slogans and pictures were posted all over the walls – clenched fists and all. I thought it was odd that a white middle-aged English guy would head up all of this, but this is South Africa and anything is possible.
So I sat around and waited for Mr Cunningham to come and call me for my interview. A tall, thin black guy in overalls walked past me and stopped. He looked back at me and said – ‘You must be Henk’. He came over and introduced himself. ‘Hi Comrade, I am Cunningham. Cunningham Ncgukana’. He wasn’t even middle-aged.