This was going to be my first big moment as NACTU negotiator. My first time out against the big boys. I had to represent the trade unions at a round of negotiations on the government budget. And they guy I was going to have to face from the government side? One of my favourites and a big hero I looked up to during the fight against Apartheid – Trevor Manuel, Minister of Finance.

Unfortunately, I was also going to face Raymond Parsons from business. Raymond has one of those personalities that drives me absolutely crazy. An English South African with just enough of an Oxford accent to annoy the hell out of me – and with the same patronizing Oxford attitude that hints at knowing better than any of us and pity us for not being as bright as him. He also stood for everything I despised at that stage – a rich white guy who headed the white South African Chamber of Commerce during the Apartheid years. And when Apartheid ended? All of a sudden he never supported it and always fought it – just behind closed doors. Doors so bloody well closed that no one knew about this fight – not even him. Needless to say, we did not get along. But at least I will have Trevor there to calm me down as he was bound to be on my side. Hey, the trade unions joined him, the UDF and the ANC in the streets during the fight against Apartheid.

But first I had to learn something about budgets. I was a political scientist, not an accountant. I didn’t even do our budget at home – what do I know of the government budget plans? And I had two days.

Well, two days later I was ready. As ready as I was going to be. Did I know anything about the budget? No. But I knew just enough to be dangerous. I knew that the government was going to cut the tax on certain goods that they qualified as everyday goods. But I knew the goods was actually luxury goods for the majority of South Africans – video machines, video cameras etc. And that it was going to cost them 200 million Rand. For the same amount, they could cut the tax on paraffin and have a huge impact on poverty. The poor spent over 30% of their income on paraffin. And they will save around 15% or more – if the government agreed to cut the tax on paraffin. And business actually supported us on this. As is typical in all negotiations, we had to give to get, but we gave enough for them to agree to support us on the paraffin issue. So all the social partners of government agreed on the tax cut on paraffin – trade unions, business and NGO’s (they almost always supported our position). So it was a surprise that government decided not to cut the tax on paraffin, but rather on these ‘everyday goods’. Let’s rock ‘n roll.

As always, I got to the meeting early. I got a cup of coffee and got my notepad, pens, cigarettes and ashtray ready. Oldest negotiating trick in the book – back when you could still smoke when and where you wanted. Light a cigarette the minute you start losing your train of thought or see the other side coming out on top. Especially because neither Trevor or Raymond smoked in public anyway.

I waited for about 10 minutes. I just lit a smoke and in walked Raymond. We didn’t know each other that well at that stage. In fact, due to a mutual dislike, we never got to know each other that well at all. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I continued to smoke. Waiting for Trevor.

Trevor and his right hand (wo)man, Maria Ramos, walked in about 20 minutes later. Now remember, this was my first every negotiations and I was about to face one of my heroes. I was shitting myself with excitement. Trevor looked straight past me and leaned over to Raymond with a big smile and said, ‘nice to see you again Comrade Parsons’. What the hell? Comrade Parsons? Did Trevor just call this guy Comrade? I was shocked into silence – not that I said anything at this stage in any case, but I was stunned.

He turned to me and mumbled a hello. No handshake – never mind being called Comrade. I just sat there staring into space. Then it hit me. He knew this was my first time. He was going to try everything to intimidate me and bully me into submission. He is here to win an argument – every battle and the war by the time we walk out of here. What the hell do I do now? This guy has negotiated against the Apartheid regime to convince them to hand over power to the people. I am fresh in a new job and was still at university a few years back.

Trevor and Raymond started talking about the budget and took a few friendly jabs at each other. Friendly banter. No serious negotiations. Raymond was obviously playing the good cop and did not need anything from these negotiations. He was here to make Trevor feel good about business. But that was not the trade union style. I was going to sink or swim.

‘Excuse me’, I said uncertainly. Neither of them even looked at me. Trevor continued to share his thoughts on his budget with Raymond. Raymond just smiled his irritating little smile and nodded his head in agreement. A little bit louder, ‘Excuse me’. No recognition that I even existed – nothing, nada.

Sink or swim, Henk. Sink or swim.

‘Excuse me, Minister Manuel, can I ask you a question’. This time it was loud enough for them to stop talking and look at me. They couldn’t ignore me this time. Trevor looked up from his notes and stared at me from under his glasses. No ‘yes’ or any recognition that I hold some interest. My mouth was halfway open to say something when Trevor interrupted me and said, ‘you do know I am not here to negotiate with you’. What was that? He is pushing the boundaries here and almost being openly hostile. I didn’t even know how to start responding to this.

Sink or swim, Henk. Sink or swim.

He turned back to his notes and started talking about the budget again. All the time looking up at Raymond every few seconds. Acknowledging Raymond, but not me. It didn’t help that I sat to his right and Raymond straight ahead of him – but Trevor picked his spot last. And I could see why. Damn this guy is good.

I swallowed – maybe loud enough for other to hear. This was my time. I had one chance and nothing more. I had to make my move now. I lit a smoke, took a deep drag and looked at the burning end. I never once looked at Trevor or Raymond, but I could sense that they were looking at me. Or at least glancing – I could hear Trevor’s voice being a little bit clearer each time he glanced at me. I put the burning cigarette down in the ashtray and slowly started packing my stuff into my bag. Not looking up at them or acknowledging them at all. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. This was my play.

I took a sip of my cold coffee and took another drag of my cigarette – I hope they couldn’t see my hands shaking slightly. And then I slowly got up and picked up my bag. Stubbed the cigarette out and then looked up and smiled. I nodded my head at Trevor and mouthed a goodbye to Raymond – acting as if I didn’t want to interrupt their discussion – even though they stopped talking at this stage and was looking at me. I took my jacket and started making my way to the door.

Trevor looked at me and said, ‘where are you going?’ I stopped and looked at him – and then I gave him the friendliest smile I could manage at that stage and said, almost apologetically, ‘I am sorry Minister Manuel. I didn’t mean to interrupt your discussion. Please do carry on’. And then I turned back as if I was about to leave again.

Again Trevor asked, ‘but where are you going?’ – this time a bit louder to show me that he wants an explanation. I stopped and said, while slowly turning to face him, ‘well Minister Manuel, you said that you are not here to negotiate with me. So I am leaving. The trade unions didn’t send me here, all the way from Cape Town, to listen to your discussion with Raymond. I am sure it will be interesting, but I can read the minutes of the meeting if I wanted to know what you two are discussing. I am going back to the trade unions to tell them that you didn’t come to NEDLAC to negotiate with me. We were clearly under the wrong impression, thinking that we were meant to be equal partners and negotiate the budget – and for that I am truly sorry’. And with that I turned around and walked out the room.

I was as nervous as hell while I did all this – but it never showed in my voice. He walked straight into my quickly hatched plan. It was a huge gamble, but I knew I had to show him that I am not here to be pushed around. Not by him or anyone else. This will set the tone for future negotiations and everyone will push me around if I caved in at my first one.

Once the door closed behind me – I just stood there for a few minutes taking a few deep breaths and lighting another smoke. After a few minutes I started walking over to the receptionist to ask her to get me a taxi. The door behind me opened and I heard Maria Ramos call my name. I turned around and walked to meet her halfway. She explained that the Minister would like me to come back inside. And, she said, while lowering her voice and quickly looking left and right to see if anyone else could hear, he would listen to my questions. ‘But will he answer them?’, I asked. She gave me a quick smile, but was obviously not impressed by my attempt at humor. ‘He’ll answer’, she said, ‘but will you come back in?’ I nodded and followed her back in – this was way better than I could ever have hoped for. I didn’t expect him to back down. I just didn’t want to come away looking like a complete loser and/or idiot.

I sat down and made myself comfortable – coffee, smokes and notepad. Trevor looked at me and said, ‘you had a question’. I looked up at him and said the line I prepared in my head many times in the last two days, ‘Minister Manuel, you decided to not zero rate paraffin, but decided to zero rate what you call everyday goods instead. Tell me, Minister Manuel, when last were you in a township? Because the last time I checked most people didn’t even have electricity – never mind the money or need for ‘everyday’ products such as video machines or video cameras. But paraffin, now that is a completely different story…’

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