As the country prepares for the much anticipated political dialogue behind the scenes manoeuvres are intensifying as political parties jostle for influence and position themselves within the civil society and trade unions in particular. 

The trade union has become a site of contestation as mainstream political parties fight to control and have influence in order to win support. If a political party controls the trade union movement, it has power to influence workers to be of a certain ideological outlook as well as how they relate to the economy.

In South Africa the biggest trade union federation, the  Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is in alliance with the ruling ANC. In Namibia the biggest trade union is also in alliance with the ruling SWAPO party, in Zimbabwe the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was not only formed by Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions but also is their largest support base.   

It came as no surprise when the recent elective conference of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) was subjected to prior scheming and behind-the-scenes plotting by the country’s major political parties. 

From intense and highly charged elections at Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union (SWADNU), to those at the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union (NAPSAWU), as well as the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), it was apparent that political parties were already preparing for the TUCOSWA congress long before it took place. 

Each one of the mainstream political parties wanted to emerge victorious and take control of eSwatini’s biggest labour federation.

The Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) has been enjoying some influence at SNAT for a few years now, especially after the end if the term of office for former President of the teachers’ union, who is current President of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) Sibongile Mazibuko. 

Encouraged by this political and organizational capital, the CPS wanted to consolidate its power base by taking over NAPSAWU, using their long time man in Quinton Dlamini – one of the longest serving trade unionists in the country—in order to go for the ultimate price—TUCOSWA. Unfortunately, Dlamini lost at an election at NAPSAWU and his allies requested that current TUCOSWA President Bheki Mamba should not contest him during the 2016 congress.

Mamba acceded to their request and Quinton took over as TUCOSWA President in 2016. During this time, the federation was preoccupied with some form of manufactured unity, so contestations were discouraged and seen as things that could destroy a relatively new and fragile federation. From the moment it was formed, the federation made some position arrangements and it was decided that leaders should not contest each other. 

For instance, seasoned unionist Mduduzi Gina agreed that the late Vincent Ncongwane must take over as Secretary General (SG) of TUCOSWA. Remember TUCOSWA was formed through a merger of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) and the Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL) whose Secretary General were Gina and Ncongwane respectively.

TUCOSWA Secretary General Mduduzi Gina

The position of SG is regarded as the most powerful and (politically and administratively) in a trade union, hence the real trade union power battle starts and ends there. That is why it was pleasing to most when they saw Gina and Ncongwane reaching a comradely decision not to contest each other at the time. 

Even during the second congress that elected Quinton as President, the political parties using their candidates reached a consensus to “spread the positions across party lines” for the sake of unity in the federation. But not this time around. The third elective congress had fierce contestations taking place, especially between the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and the CPS.

By way of preparing for the third TUCOSWA congress, the CPS worked so hard to push for Mbongwa Dlamini to take over as SNAT President in 2017 so that things could be easier for the battle to take over the federation in 2021. Mbongwa is considered a friend of the CPS and is believed to be managed from the Communist Party. 

PUDEMO candidates took over NAPSAWU and SWADNU harvesting the CPS's failed to take over. On the other hand, PUDEMO closed ranks and reinforced, using its experience to take over the union ahead of the TUCOSWA congress.

Their members won the elections during the recent TUCOSWA congress and this marked the end of a 6-year old battle that started in the unions. PUDEMO’s trade union deployees won: Bheki Mamba took over as president; Mduduzi Gina defeated Jabu Shiba; former Secretary General of PUDEMO Youth League, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), Thabile Zwane was elected Treasurer and little known Sifiso Mabuza lost to PUDEMO’s Musa Sifundza in the position of Organizing Secretary. This time around PUDEMO did not negotiate for ‘balancing up’ of slates in the election but went all out to win everything, and boy they did!

Since this is politics, the battle might not be over yet; already some forces are bitter about the developments and might plan for a comeback, in which case the battle for the heart and soul of TUCOSWA continues!

NB: This article has been edited to remove the inference that Sfiso Mabuza is aligned with the CPS. It has since been brought to our attention that Mabuza is not a member of the CPS. We apologise to Mabuza for this error.