unions


It’s time that I remind myself what I think of Zuma. The most likely person to become President of South Africa next year. He won his battle with Mbeki. He got Mbeki to resign as President. Okay. Technically it was the ANC who got a little help from their friends the Three Stooges – COSATU, ANC YL and the SACP. But Zuma is Mr Idiot. And that’s putting it mildly… Will someone close the door when he is done? Or at least wipe the rim? I wrote this a few months back when the battle started. It made it into the Mail & Guardian in South Africa and for some reason not everyone was pleased. To those who say I only bash Republicans. Read on. You’ll see I come down hard on any political leader who does’t hold his or her side of the bargain. Let’s bitch…

How did we get to this, Arch?

How did we get to this, Arch?

Don’t bitch about Bush – you got Zuma

I am extremely proud of being African and South African. What we have managed to do over the last 15 odd years have been unbelievable. From the most despicable Apartheid regime to a stable democracy and sound economic growth. From the bottom of the world pecking order, to the leading global voice on justice. A leading light in a world at war. We have shown the world how everyone can live in peace and harmony – and celebrate differences instead of letting it divide us. The region I come from has shown the world how Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Jew can all live together, celebrate our differences and enrich our lives in this melting pot we call home – instead of trying to wipe each other out.

Yes, like all other countries we have challenges. Crime, poverty and HIV/Aids being the biggest. At the heart is poverty – or at least the lack of shared wealth. Too much is still in the hands of a small group of umlungu’s. We have the systems in place to start addressing this – affirmative action will help, but we have lots more to do to address wealth distribution. But as a start affirmative action policies have been integrated into our procurement system in innovative ways, as well as in the workplace. At the same time the government has brought electricity, running water and housing to millions of people. And so much more that still needs to be done. We are very much a work in progress. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless. Change doesn’t happen overnight.

We have won the Rugby World Cup – twice! Unfortunately, we continue to suck big time in soccer, but will show the world how to party in 2010.

We have shown how democracy can be a powerful way to bring real benefits to all people in South Africa. Since 1994 we have experienced mostly all the good and great things of having a democracy.

And then there was Zuma.

Zuma has just been elected as the leader of the ANC – the political party I have always supported and voted for in South Africa. He is now in a perfect position to become the next President of South Africa. The ‘Comrades’ at the ANC Congress last month celebrated his win as proof that democracy works and that anyone can be elected as a leader in a free and fair election.

But lets be clear about something. Zuma is an idiot. I have met him a few times and he is not the sharpest tool in the shed. He has the charisma of a damp dishcloth. And the morals of a rat. He didn’t deny sleeping with the young girl that was not only HIV positive, but also a family friend. Whether there was consent or not is irrelevant. You would expect more from someone who is supposed to be a leader we look up to – who should be a shining light for us to follow. And the fact that he took a shower afterwards to ‘ensure’ he doesn’t ‘catch’ HIV speaks to his intellect. And I am not even going to go into the corruption charges. How the hell can the ANC Women’s League justify supporting this guy during the election? And when I was a unionist in South Africa we all saw Zuma speak at the COSATU Congress – how could you even think for a minute he would be a leader for the workers or the people?

I know that people don’t like Mbeki, but you don’t drink cyanide just because you don’t like Coke. Pick something else that won’t kill you. Okay, cyanide will kill you quicker than Zuma, but the outcome will be the same – Zuma will drag everything that Madiba and all our great leaders have worked and fought for through the mud. We will be the laughing stock of the world. Mbeki is a statesman respected across the world for not bending to popular demand, but sticking to what is just and right. Well, most of the time – he is fallible (read his HIV/Aids policies). Hey, I don’t even like him that much. But Mbeki is a giant compared to Zuma.

What really gets to me is the fact that these same ‘Comrades’ will be the ones bitching and moaning about Bush and other world leaders , but especially Bush. As they used to say at union meeting – ‘Comrade, you are out of order’. You lost your right to criticize the democratically elected leaders from other countries when you elected Zuma as your leader. Bush might be an idiot with policies we don’t like or agree with, but he was democratically elected (twice) by his people. Okay, he IS an idiot – just like Zuma. So, stop your bitching about Bush or Brown – or even Mugabe – you got Zuma. YOU just moved us from standing on the moral highground to crawling in the mud. YOU voted him in. YOU are responsible. YOU will be the laughing stock of the world. YOU just lost your right to bitch.

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I feel a bit like Obama at the moment. It seems as if the race card is being played. Or rather that people are all of a sudden interested in my race. Black or white? For the record? People keep on asking. It really shouldn’t be this difficult. Just a little bit of research will clarify it all up nicely. Really. Let me give some help here. But before we go there.

I am interested in why people want to know if I am black or white. Does it matter? Does it tell you all you need to know about me? Will the reaction be “Ah, I thought so”. Thought so what? How would my race make it any easier to understand what I say? The accent and language will still be a bit of a problem. Will it make it easier to dig through what I write and find the white or black warning lights? Will it help in making me fit into the box? The boxes we build.

Most know that I don’t think the world is black or white – no pun intended – but shades of grey. Nothing is definite. Nothing is final. Nothing is the final answer. Nothing is as it seems. There is always another angle. A third angle. But still. It should be easy to tick the box next to my name. But everyone seems to struggle a bit with that one.

It should be easy. Just a little bit of research is required. And you don’t even have to leave this site. Start at the start. My first blog – I wasn’t born to be an activist. It tells you all about where I come from. At the least the first bit. That I wasn’t born to be like this. No. I wasn’t socialized to be like this. I wasn’t brought up to be like this. I was brought up to think about race. As a racist. It’s easy to follow the trail from there onwards. Just read from the back – everything under “An Accidental Activist” will give you an idea of the journey so far.

I don’t mind the name calling. Really, I don’t. Another one you can read is about the name calling. Read Umlungu – becoming a white bastard. That was my first bit of name calling. But I actually liked that one. I’ve been called worse. Much worse. But the name calling isn’t really much of an issue. It’s the race card that is an issue.

It’s happened a few times. Being called out because of the color of my skin. At the UN while being asked by my African colleagues to co-chair a meeting. And some black non-Africans complained that I wasn’t the right color. Or rather – not the right shade. It is odd. Very odd. The only places where my color of my skin was never questioned was at NACTU and at the African Caucus.Guess what. There wasn’t a white face around. Not a single one. Except my shade. Makes me think a bit that one.  Their response was always the same, “So what. Look at his heart. Look at his deeds. Look at his blood. Look at his soul.”

I think it might have to do with the fact that racism doesn’t have anything to do with race, and has everything to do with race. People just want to put other people in little boxes. If you’re gay you are this way. If you are male you are that way. If you are black you are this way. And if you are Chinese you are that way.

Maybe the only way is people. Just sit down. Close your eyes. Listen to your soul. And listen to the voices around you – not the one in your head. Hear the wonder. Hear the beauty. Hear the people of this world living. And we can be part of that. Or we can be living in our own little box.

So what am I?

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Here we go again…

1. The world growing bigger?

The only problem is that not everything else is expanding with it. I know it is disturbing. But don’t worry. We are. Humans. And other planets. And animals. At least until we slaughter them and turn them into burgers and steaks. Even our measurements are expanding. And no, I don’t mean our waistlines. Okay. Not only our waistlines. Also our waste-lines. No idea what that means, but it sounded good when I wrote it. Anyway… I thought the world must be growing while our food and drinks stay the same size. Why? Because everything is getting smaller. Bought a salad the other day and realized that it is smaller than what I remembered from the last time I bought a salad. But then I had a closer look. Damnit. Can you believe it. Even salads are being reduced in size. No – not because of obesity. Rather because of profits. With “raw” materials and overheads going up they had to cut cost somewhere. Why not start with the portions they sell? No problem. Right? Well, I don’t have a problem with it. But it would have been nice of them to tell me. I felt a bit cheated. Dirty. And looking at the smaller packet made me feel all grown up and bigger than what I feel really comfortable with. I felt a bit like Alice for a minute. But, as you might know, I am not a big salad eater. So it didn’t faze me. But I lost it when I realized that they are doing it to beer! Bloody hell people! That’s a line you should never, ever cross. Do what you want with us, but leave our beer alone. You thought President Bush got all pissed at Iraq trying to kill his daddy. Don’t mess with an African and his beer. But they did. Selling us 14 ounce beers but passing it off as a 16 ounce beer! Sacrilege! But the trend continues. Cars are getting smaller. Which is a good thing. My ego can fit into a Mini. But those guys with the big trucks and girls with the big SUV’s. Not sure if their ego can fit into a Ford Focus. I mean really, they only just manage to squeeze into a Hummer. Yeah. The world is shrinking. No, you aren’t getting fat. It’s the clothes shrinking… We’ll all look like Lance Armstrong soon. Tights everywhere. Okay, maybe with two… hum… you know. Oh, I was lying about the salad. It is shrinking, but I am African. We don’t do salad. A good salad is anything not meaty – like chicken.

2. Getting ready to be arrested

I am off to China this weekend. But I’ll tell you about that later. Once I am back. Still waiting for my visa, but hopefully that will be sorted today. There is a reason why I use the name Angry African you know… Anyway. I have been talking to my IT guy about staying connected while I am over there. Apparently it won’t be a good idea to blog from there. Not only do they sometimes “relieve” you of the burden carrying your laptop around, but don’t like bloggers speaking out that much. Not much at all. You see, China, Burma, Iran and Egypt heads the list of countries arresting people because they blog about their political views. I am safe then I guess. I don’t do political views… What I write is nothing but an impartial view of the world and what is happening around us. So I should be safe. But many bloggers are not. 334 got arrested in Burma alone. But thanks to their “somewhat” restrictive government, these could not be verified. When you drop of the face of the earth… 

3. No workers, no problem

Biofuels are held up as either the answer to all our problems or the next disaster to hit us. I don’t have much of a view on this one. I think biofuels could be part of the solution (not the solution), but the current approach sucks. Using corn and sugar just don’t make sense. it pushes food prices right up and we cut down forests meant to protect us from emissions. Sounds like stupid economics to me. And Brazil has a huge problem. They are cutting down the Amazon rainforest faster than you can say “Hummer”. I mean really. 1,123 square kilometers were cut down in April alone… So Unica, the Brazilian ethanol lobby decided to go on the charm offensive. They invited a few journalist around to show them all the good stuff they are doing. Apart from the cutting down of trees that they forgot to mention, most of their ideas are just fine. Like going all mechanical in the cutting of the cane. Less pollution because they don’t have to burn them anymore. But there was something else that caught my eye. The reporter only mentions it as a “by the way”. But it struck me that Unico might still need some more PR training. Unico said that companies are going all mechanical on us because it addresses two challenges. One, the pollution. Check. Secondly, it will get rid of the cane-cutters and therefore also get rid of any labor problems and labor critics. Hum. Maybe you shouldn’t have mentioned that one. Keep spinning the “we chop down trees to be green” line. It’s not only more believable, it also makes the “little people” go away.

4. The two stooges

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are meeting as we speak. I mean Mbeki and Mugabe are meeting. In Zimbabwe. Not sure why. Maybe to discuss the weather. Or the latest fashion. Or what curtains to pick for their new houses. Or fining new and more spouses. Bloody idiots. Look. I have supported Mbeki through thick and thin. Defended him wherever I could. I even defended his initial position on HIV/Aids in South Africa. And justified his initial approach to the Zimbabwean crisis. But it has gone too far. People are dying in South Africa because of his idiotic HIV/Aids policies and lack of action. And people are dying in Zimbabwe because of a tyrant that has gone bonkers. Mbeki and his “quiet diplomacy” just sounds like “staying quiet”. Sorry you two idiots. Time’s up. You are not welcome anymore. Just take your stuff and go sit in the corner. And be quiet. We have a name for people like you. It starts with an “m”. “Moer-something” in Afrikaans and “Mother-something” in English. Just go. Don’t hang your curtains. Hang your heads in shame. Or just hang your heads.

5. McCain inspiring old white men in Europe

I don’t think so. Okay, maybe he does if you include the arms dealers. But other than that, McCain inspires people outside the US about as much as Osama Bin Laden inspires tolerance. yes, there might be one or two out there who would fall for them. But they are loonies and at the fringe. But Obama. Now that is another story. He isn’t even President (yet) and he is already inspiring people across the world. telling them to break out of their racial stereotype and that anything is possible. That you can do it – no matter where you come from. France is going through some tough times right now. Race is at the forefront of so many debates. And they have violence on the streets of Paris. Because people feel hopeless. That in the land of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Well educated blacks have to compete with 15-year old white kids for a job at McDonald’s. Nothing wrong with working at McDonald’s. But when the color of your skin stoops you from aiming higher, then you have a problem. But all of a sudden Obama is making people talk about race in France. And what it means. And how it can be overcome. And how it can inspire people to continue to fight the good fight for equality. Real equality. Not just a French word. That is inspiring. That is Obama. McSame? Well, apparently the old people in France likes his comb-over. It is so provincial.

See ya later.

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Hey, April is almost over. But the madness not. Let’s look at the weak as it happened.

1. Dude, I just smoked the house

Those bloody Aussies. They are taking us all for a ride. No wait. More like a riiiideeee, dude. And sometimes just taking the piss. But good for them. See, they are always trying to find new ways to pull a fast one – those damn Aussies. Give them half a chance… And now they are using the “green” debate out there to create new “eco-friendly” ways of living their lives. I always knew they were a bunch of pot smoking Irish convicts entrepreneurs. But the latest one take the cake. Or should I say “brownie” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). The Aussies are now claiming that they are building “green” houses by using hemp. Yep. That’s pretty green hey. I think it is because they first have to dry out the leaves. What better way than build a house of dope leaves and leave it to the Australian sun to dry it out nicely. And when it is nice and dry? “Sorry officer, I have no idea how the fire started. The house just went off in flames…” Dude. What a plan, maaan. That’s dope man. And I mean it. But they didn’t stop there. The other question they faced? What to do with all that… hum… pee that comes from drinking too much XXXX. Just recycle it brother. Yes. Recycled water. I guess they can use that when they burn the house. Or burn the house when they drink the water. I would. Just to get the taste out my mouth. I think the Aussies are taking the piss.

2. Just bomb Global Warming

Okay, we are now officially… hum… you know… stuffed. Global Warming is going to wipe us out. Or maybe not. It seems as if we might now have two ways to die as Global Warming creeps up as bites us in the more delicate places. We can either fry in the heat or be bombed to smithereens. At least we have a choice now. All thanks to the Royal United Services Institute. And no, that isn’t some think-tank about Prince Charles and his bevy of servants – it’s the “leading forum in the UK for national and international Defence and Security”. Founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, RUSI is the oldest institute of its kind in the world. Yes, the same guy who gave us those nice rubber boots to walk with in British crap rainy weather also gave us a think-tank to come up with new ways of justifying war. Thanks Duke. Anyway, the RUSI says that Global Warming will get so bad that we will go into wars that will last for centuries and will be worse than the previous two World Wars. So I guess we need more military funding then hey? Nice one – not even Dick could think of a better way to keep Halliburton in the black for a hundred years or more. I do see a little flaw in their argument though. If Global Warming will fry us all – how come we can still be alive to fight wars for a few hundred years? Hum… that’s the thinking part. You concentrated a little bit too much on the tank part buddy. DO YOU HEAR ME SOLDIER! OOH-RAH! (Sorry Marines.) Never mind, at least I will have those Wellington boots when the sea levels start rising.

3. ZZ Top

Yes, it is the battle of the Z’s. Zambia against Zimbabwe. And I am cheering for Zambia. I love Zambia. The most peaceful nation on earth. Never been in a war – internal or external. And you have to know Zambians to know why. The nicest people on earth. And they didn’t even have to build those Aussie “green” houses to be laid back. Okay, also one of the poorest nations on earth. But that didn’t stop them from standing up to the tyrant of the South – Mad Bob Mugabe. You see, China is trying to deliver some weapons to Zimbabwe. Yes, war and instability pays – just Halli and Burton. Back to the South. First the trade unions in South Africa refused to unload the weapons (well done comrades – what we call them back home). And they called Mad Bob out for the coward that he is. You don’t mess with a unionist in South Africa. The Teamsters are as tough as accountants compared to the South African version. If they say the ship won’t be unloaded… then the ship won’t be unloaded. Ever. Even the rats were to scared to make a move on the ship or dare get off the ship. Anyway, Zambia decided to show some political leadership sadly lacking from my own beloved government. President Mwanawasa from Zambia stood up and stood strong. Saying that any weapons delivered to Mad Bob’s puppets can and will undermine any possibility of breaking the violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe. And the Great Chinese ship turned around and headed back home. Head hanging down in shame and tail between their legs. I love Zambia even more. Now. If we can only get Mwanawasa to target a few other warmongers out there. Dick, you beter watch out. You might just piss off anger a Zambian. And as Mad Bob just realized, that ain’t no pretty thing to face.

4. Drive-thru shooting

“You talking to me? You talking to me?” Some of the last words heard at the McDonald’s drive-thru before the shoot-out at the OK Corral Golden Arches. You see, Makyala Hall went for her standard quality dinner at McDonalds and knew that you have to wait to get quality. I mean really, Le McDonald’s isn’t just some fast-food take-out joint. It’s the premier dinner destination in Tulsa. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve been to Tulsa. So Makyala waited patiently for her food at the rathole restaurant that inspired Gordon Ramsay. But after an hour she thought this might be taking a tad longer than what she expected. It is a crappy joint gourmet restaurant, but she ordered drive-thru. And she couldn’t idle her car waiting for her bag of fat handmade burger the whole evening – not with gas prices being the way they are. So she marched up to the manager and told him where to stick his fries where the burgers don’t fit. A super-sized verbal fight broke out and he flipped her faster than those patties. And then good old Madman Thurman showed up. The Cola dude from behind the counter. But he was off duty and stuffed with either beer or Quarter Pounders. In other words – he was drunk with power. I mean, he is the Spongebob of Tulsa. And he was faster on the draw than on the service. And shot the guy in the car behind Makayla when he interrupted their little argument about whether the King can take out Ronald. And all he wanted was some ketchup with his fries. He made it though. Still alive. But just. See the health nuts were right – McDonald’s can kill you.

5. A Bush I can get to like Good Bush, bad Bush

And I am talking about the one on the left. Not the smiling paw-paw in the middle or the smiling papa on the right. They are so not cool. It’s drool, not cool. But Jenna. If you take the two pees peas puh-lease P’s away and she might just look like she is at a Metallica concert. Okay, not a fan of Metallica, but you get my drift. Anyway, it seems as if she might actually think before she decides who to vote for. Now stay with me people. Yes, a Bush that can think before they take an action. Any action. I know, this is revolutionary. Or maybe evolutionary, but it is happening. I actually don’t care who she votes for. I just like the fact that she refused to be put in a little box when asked who she will vote for. Remember, her mother was sitting next to her and just said that she will vote for “the Republican”. And when Larry asked Jenna? She said she wasn’t sure as she hasn’t made up her mind yet – and then followed this up with, “I mean, who isn’t open to learning about the candidates and I’m sure that everybody is like that“. Huh-duh, like half the US isn’t open to learn sweetheart. Okay Larry, you actually got someone to not agree with their mother in public. I hope you feel proud. You should. Great work Jenna. Now, if only I can talk to you about a little war thing going on.

That’s all folks. Have a good one and speak to you later.

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I won’t comment on whether I believe in unions or not. That’s for another time and another debate. And I think my time in the unions might affect my opinion. But I do have a concern about the impact that attitudes towards unions can have on a business – especially a global business.

I don’t know how often I hear US companies say that they don’t need or like trade unions. That it is their business and they will make the decisions. Or that they like to develop a personal relationship that is more like a family. That people working for the company are not workers, but rather partners or associates. ‘Unions are not for us thanks. We look after our workers and believe in the personal relationship between us and our partners’ – standard responses by businesses in the US. And these are good businesses. Not sweatshops or the companies you would put on your black list. No, these are companies I, and most people, admire and like most of the time. Companies we don’t mind supporting or work for. Companies we hold up as leaders in the field of development, environment, stakeholder engagement and everything else you want to throw in the hat. Companies that inspire us. And I just don’t get it.

Yes, unions in the US might not be the friendliest of the bunch – and they have their own reasons. But the world is different the minute you step outside these borders. You might have strong feelings about unions and their role in the US. But they are viewed differently outside these borders.

You run the risk of killing your business if you believe that Europe is a key market and you still believe that trade unions have no role to play in your business. Go to Germany and France and people love their unions. People are proud of being a member and unions have huge influence on communities and politicians. Hey, they even participate on the board in many companies.

In most Scandinavian countries unions are part of official political alliances on national and local levels. They help decide what money goes to what programs and they support union movements all over the globe. The local political leader will most likely be a union leader as well. In these countries unions are seen as key to development and foreign policy. Remember, we are talking about social democracies here.

And political alliances between governments and unions are also common in places like South Africa. Here the largest trade union federation COSATU is also an official ally of the ruling ANC government. In fact, they played a key role in electing Zuma as the new ANC leader over current President Mbeki. They didn’t like Mbeki’s economic policies and selected someone they felt they could control a bit more. And union members are part of the official Ministerial WTO team of negotiators. They are embedded in the government. And South Africa has unionization rates way above 80% just to make things a bit more difficult in case you decide you don’t like them.

Also, why would you want to tell your suppliers that their workers should have freedom of association in places like India, China and Mexico when you don’t want that back home? Yes, unions are mostly limited or controlled (and sometimes hunted) in some of those places, but the principle of freedom of association should be consistent for both you and your suppliers. Your suppliers won’t feel that committed if you don’t walk the talk.

And to make things even more difficult they use a a different language when you leave these borders. It’s not brother and sister anymore – it is comrade. Again – no comment from me whether this is right or wrong – you just have to live with it. And learn to celebrate 1 May as Workers’ Day – a global celebration of workers and their rights, just not in the US.

So, if you decide that you don’t want unions in some of your overseas offices you might just as well close your shop and walk away from the global market. You have to think and act like a global player if you want to play oas a global player. Love them or hate them, but you can’t operate efficiently in these countries without them. Remember that, and you might become trusted and build a loyal workforce – become the ‘comrade boss from the big office’.

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I was as exited as hell. Minister Alec Erwin, Minister of Trade and Industry, asked me to be part of the Ministerial Team to go to the WTO round in Seattle. Not only was it an incredible honour to represent my country, but this was going to be my first trip to the US. USA here we come.

It was a long, long flight to Seattle. It’s a 14 hour flight to Miami and another 7 hours to Seattle. And a few hours hanging around Miami waiting for our connecting flight. It took me just more than 24 hours to get from Cape Town to Seattle. Remember, those were my smoking days.

No luck in having a smoke in Miami. Welcome to the US – where smoking was already banned. I was held up by security for a while. I guess my diplomatic passport didn’t do the job. Yep, got one of those, but only for the duration of Seattle WTO round. No time for a smoke. I was slowly dying by this time.

Actually it wasn’t that bad. I am like Pavlov’s Dog when it comes to flying. I fall asleep the second I feel the engines starting. So I slept pretty much for 20 hours plus. I was wide awake by the time we got to Seattle in the middle of the night. Time to hit the bar then.

Dennis George, from another trade union federation, and myself decided to go for a few beers and see if that would get us ready for bed. The theory was that we will either get tired or pass out if we drank enough. So we sat in an almost empty bar and had a few bad beers – my first Bud was my last Bud. The only other people in the bar was the barman, one fat middle aged with a walking stick and a beautiful girl in her 20s. They weren’t together.

The girl got up to leave and started walking in our direction to get out – we sat close to the exit. Dennis looked at her and as she came closer – well more of a stare than a look. You need to know Dennis… She almost passed us when Dennis mumbled a hello. She stopped and turned towards us – and looked at us for a few seconds. And then she asked if she could join us.

That was odd. Neither Dennis or myself are much to look at. Our beauty is more internal… Dennis bought her a drink and I just looked at her trying to figure out why she wanted to join us. So I asked, ‘what do you do for a living?’ She was a ‘private exotic dancer’, she said. I was trying to figure it out – and then it hit me. ‘So, what does a private exotic dancer do?’ ‘Anything you would like me to do. In private.’ Confirmed – she was a prostitute.

With that out the way it made it easier to talk. I wasn’t going to pay. I would have to leave if she wasn’t a prostitute. I am happily married and have no interest in other women. But with her being a prostitute it meant that she wouldn’t want to sleep with me in any case – I wasn’t going to pay! No interest from either party. We could just sit and chat. And I told her so.

We had a nice chat. She came from somewhere I can’t recall. Somewhere in California I think – San Something. She came to Seattle to ‘work’ the WTO delegates and already had a few ‘hits’. I asked her how much she charged – $400 per hour. Bloody hell! Three strikes and I am out – love my wife, won’t pay and can’t afford anyway. But Dennis had other ideas.

Dennis started talking about the possibility of them coming to a financial agreement that suited both of them. He was trying to negotiate a ‘living’ price – like any a good trade union negotiator should. But she got down to $250 and wouldn’t move from their. Still way off the $50 Dennis was willing to pay. South African trade unionist were cheap – we didn’t get paid that much. But Dennis was arguing that he wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes at most and that made it $200 per hour. I think he was pushing with the 15 minutes claim – that was just subtle bragging.

I started losing interest in their discussion and concentrated on my beer and the guy in the bar. He was having this incredible chat with the barman about his shares. And the barman was talking about his shares. The middle aged guy was a fisherman (with a walking stick?). Two average guys talking about their investments. So different from South Africa where only the rich can even think about investments – never mind actually investing. Welcome to the US where they talk about their investments and not about surviving another day.

The middle aged guy got up and started walking towards us to leave. He was about to exit when he turned around and looked at the prostitute and tilted his cap and said, ‘evening mam. Send my regards to your family’ and then walked on. She didn’t hear him. I asked her if she knew the guy that walked past and she said that she doesn’t know him from a bar of soap. ‘Well, I think you just missed a customer as he was talking to you and said something about your family’. She jumped up in a flash and ran after him with all the composure she could muster. They spoke for a few second and then got into the lift and disappeared. She didn’t even say goodbye. Dennis was shell shocked. ‘Hey Dennis, you’ll thank me in the morning when you look at your wallet’. And with that I went off to bed. Alone. To sleep.

The next day was boring. We sat around and discussed tactics for the following day when negotiations was due to start. I was to focus on the African group of countries. The African countries negotiated a common position before we came over and it was my job to ensure we stick with this deal. With that done – time to explore the city and have a few beers.

Hit the jackpot at the first bar. I saw a group of people with steelworkers t-shirt drinking together. Well, I was a trade unionist and decided to join them for the evening. Had a ball. Shared trade union stories – they were all on permanent protest against a company that fired them a few years back. I didn’t tell them I was a WTO delegate as it became clear that they were in town to protest at the WTO meeting. It also became clear that they expected a huge protest the next day. People from all over will be in the streets – treehuggers, activists, trade unionist, anarchist all joining together for the first time to protest against something you could all agree on – their hatred of the WTO. It was late in the evening when we parted – and they gave me a steward’s badge for the protests planned the next day. I was now both a delegate at the WTO meeting and a steward and marshall at the protest against the WTO meeting!

President Clinton was going to have an official welcome on day one – and I was asked to represent South Africa with Minister Erwin and Kevin Wakeford from business. Needless to say, they expected me to dress the part – suit and all. But no, thanks to my steelwork friends, I knew that the protest was going to huge and dressed like a protester instead – khaki trousers, boots, suede jacket, cap and backpack. Easy to turn into something more presentable if I tucked in my shirt and took off the cap.

Of course Alec Erwin was less impressed with my choice of attire. We all got together in his, much fancier, hotel room before we left. I walked into his room and he stared at my clothes for a while before saying, ‘Mr H, I know you like a more casual approach to clothing, but you do know that we are going to the official opening to represent our country. And we are going to meet President Clinton’. I smiled at him and said, ‘we’ll have to see who makes it into the building first’. He had a perplexed look on his face but just shrugged and said, ‘lets go’.

Alec and Kevin had suits on – and their WTO delegate umbrella and id cards (hanging around their necks). That was the standard WTO delegate dress for the day. Needless to say, they stood out like a sore thumb in the streets where everyone was wearing protester clothing. We turned the corner to the building where the WTO meeting was to be held and just saw a sea of protesters. It seemed as if all 50,000 protesters turned our way and, seeing the suits and umbrellas advertising their WTO status, they all shouted ‘delegates!’ And then they surrounded our little group of three. Shouting and screaming insults – and making sure we don’t get any further.

Okay, they didn’t surround our group of three. They actually surrounded the group of two – Alec and Kevin. You see, I looked like a protester with my clothes, backpack and lack of WTO umbrella and id card (tucked away in my backpack and pocket). Alec and Kevin couldn’t move. They were surrounded. I looked at Alec and Kevin, winked and moved into the crowd. See ya later, suckers!

Everywhere I walked there were little groups of delegates surrounded by protesters. None of the delegates were allowed to move and no one could get close to the WTO building. But I was free to walk amongst the protesters. Especially with my steward badge and all.

It was a see of faces and dresses. Turtles, dolphins and even a few cows. It was something to see. Everyone standing for anything joined together for one day of protesting against a common enemy – the WTO. And the teamsters did their bit as well. Surrounding the place with trucks and buses. Making it impossible for anyone to get in or out. Man, it was beautiful and looked for a minute like the dawn of something new and powerful – people’s power.

I walked around to see if there was a way in. But the teamsters did their work pretty well. The trucks and buses blocked every angle. And they had people manning every opening to ensure no one got in. But I had to get in. That was my job.

I got to the building where Clinton was going to open the meeting. A few buses between me and the building. And a few protesters on top of the buses. And then the riot police waiting on the other side. Only one way in – over the buses we go.

I got on top of a bus and looked around. Good choice. No one else on this one. Just two cops on the other side waiting. But that shouldn’t be a problem. I have a WTO id card. I jumped down the other side and the cops came running towards me – their riot gear shaking and weapons aimed and ready. I shouted at them that I am a delegate. They stopped about 2 meter away from me and told me to get back ‘sir’. What? I repeated that I am a delegate – just let me get my id card. But they told me to get back. Their orders were to not let anyone in. What? Not even delegates! These guys were taking orders way too seriously. The first order of the day was to not allow anyone get through, but they forgot to tell them that they should allow the delegates through! (Tip for their superiors. Speak slowly, clearly and in single syllables. And remember. these guys don’t interpret orders. They just execute it – to the t).

They were getting agro and I knew that the best move would be to go back the way I came – over the bus. By now a few protesters have started to take notice of me on cop side of the buses. And they started to shout encouragement! Booing the cops. They still didn’t know that I was a WTO delegate. I moved back to the bus and a few protesters extended their hands to help me back up. ‘Great stuff’, ‘yea, take them on’, and ‘way to go brother’ greeted me as I got back into the crowd. I was a hero amongst the protesters for a little while…

But I had to get in. That was my job. I started moving towards the front of the main WTO building. But a human chain blocked my way in everywhere. I played the game – walking around as a marshall and steward telling people to strengthen the lines. All the while looking for a way in.

Things were starting to look bad though. The crowd was losing control. The anarchists started burning tires, throwing bricks and stones at windows, and climbing on top of building shouting and taunting the cops. I have been at enough protests marches in South Africa to know that this was only heading one way – a clash.

I got close to the front of the main protest facing the riot police. I was about 3 people away from the front when people started to sit down. Bad move. I have learned from experience that you don’t sit down in front of cops when they want you to move. And then came the teargas. It was like being home in South Africa back in the 80s all over again – protesting, riot police, teargas and stones versus rubber bullets.

The guy in front of me got hit by a teargas canister and it went off in his face. He started wailing and puking almost immediately. I grabbed my handkerchief, wet it with my water bottle and covered my face (a lesson learnt from many protests in South Africa – be prepared). It burned, but it was easier to breathe this way. And then I grabbed the guy that got hit by the teargas and started pulling him towards the side – towards the WTO building.

Make no mistake. I didn’t do it to help the guy. I saw him as my ticket to get into the WTO building. I dragged him to the human chain and shouted at them that I needed to get him to a medic – and flashed them my steward badge. They opened up and the medics were just a few meters away. I threw the guy at the medics and shouted at them to help him.

I sat down, washed my face with the bottled water and then took out my delegate id card. The cops were moving towards me – ready to either arrest me or kick me back into the protesting crowd. I got up and flashed them my delegate card and shouted, ‘will you now please let me in?’ They stepped back, pointed to the entrance of the building and shouted ‘go!’. I grabbed my backpack and walked over to the doors wiping the teargas tears from my face.

I got into the building and headed for the escalator to go upstairs to the meeting area. It was one hell of a long escalator. I looked up as I got on the escalator and just saw cameras flashing and rolling. Damn. The press. They have been starved of people to interview all day. No one made it in and here I was – a prey to pounce on. Someone to interview at last.

But I wasn’t meant to speak to the press. I had no training. What do I do? Push past them or say a few words? I quickly decided that I will speak to them. It has been about 3 hours or more since the South African team last saw me disappear into the crowd of protesters. I was sure that they were all back at the hotel room by now. Watching CNN to see hat was happening. I will talk to the press to let them know I am okay. I am alive and well. And that I made it in. So I straigtened my clothes and neatened my hair. Bring on the cameras baby!

I hit the top and froze. There were cameras and microphones everywhere. People shouting questions left, right and centre. I couldn’t register. Then I heard a question coming through my cloudy mind, ‘sir, what’s like out there?’ And I said the first thing that came to my mind, ‘well, the first thing that went through my mind when I smelled the teargas was home-sweet-home’. And it went out live for the world to see.

And the press loved me for that. I gave them a soundbite and that was what they wanted. I was their favourite for the rest of the day. I don’t know if it was because of my quote or whether I was one of only a handful of people they could interview. But I enjoyed the media attention and had my 15 minutes of fame – stretched to a few hours because of a lack of competition!

So I spend most of the day and evening talking to the press and drinking coffee. Nothing to do. The police had to clear the streets before I could leave the building again. But I did get a great t-shirt. Man the Americans are fast. I got a t-shirt that said ‘my trade minister went to the WTO and all I got was this lousy trade deal’. Still got it.

I eventually went to the hotel at 2 am. The cops escorted me all the way there. Two cop cars in front and one at the back. Me in the limo in the middle. So different from the day of protesting. But by now the streets were empty. Not a soul except for the cops.

I got to the hotel and headed up to Alec’s room. I wasn’t sure whether he would still be awake, but had to check in to make sure. Just to show him I am back. I could hear the tv inside and opened the door. He was still up with most of the team hanging around. He looked at me and shook his head saying, ‘home sweet home Mr H?’

Okay, so it wasn’t the best thing to say with the world watching. But who made it to the meeting and who didn’t?

___________

(Note: a few other things on my Seattle experience.

Day 2 was even more unbelievable. There were absolutely no one in the streets. You could hear the riot police marching through the streets in typical military style. Their beat echoed off the buildings. Like police patrolling the streets in a police state. A sign of the future world to come?

I was walking the empty streets by myself for a little while – just to take in a bit of Seattle. And I saw my first sex shop. It had Barbie and Ken in S&M clothing in the window. I was dumbstruck and stared at it not knowing what to think. It was so foreign. Barbie has never been the same since. A sign of the future South Africa to come?

And of course, all of this happened while my wife and daughter was at home. We told my daughter that I was going to Seattle. She was almost three and didn’t get what I was doing there, but she got the fact that I was in Seattle. My wife was cooking when she heard my daughter call from the TV room, ‘look mom, Seattle’. My wife came into the room and saw the absolute chaos happening in Seattle. She knew that I would be one of the people in the rioting crowd. I always want to be in the middle of it – not participate, but try and get a sense of it all. Just take it in and observe people and their behaviour. And she did what she always does – she started worrying. She didn’t go to sleep until I phoned from the hotel many, many hours later. A sign of our future together when I travel?)

I always thought that my home-sweet-home comment was just relevant to that moment in Seattle. But it only hit home how true it was when I moved to the US many years later. It still felt like home-sweet-home. Both the good and the bad

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It took me a while to gain the support of everyone at NACTU – being the first white guy ever to work for NACTU wasn’t as easy as what you might think. Back in the 80s NACTU specifically decided not to join COSATU because of the white leadership within the trade union movement that dominated COSATU unions. They decided to go on their own and keep NACTU a black only trade union federation – black consciousness needed this approach early on. So not everyone was celebrating when I was asked to head up NACTU’s negotiations at NEDLAC. But the fact that I was white soon became a secondary issue – and actually counted in our favour.

The majority of business and government people around the table were white – and from older stock. They believed that I had something in common with them at every level, including politics and social interests – just because we shared a skin colour and language. We used this often and effectively. Most negotiations took place during coffee or smoke breaks. And it was easy for me to become part of the group of white guys talking rugby, braaivleis (barbecue) and… well, positions at the negotiating table. They shared information with me that they wouldn’t do with any of my black colleagues. And I took this information back to strengthen our position and develop new tactics – we won more often than not.

This helped me develop a deeper trust within the union movement. How people viewed me changed from being an outsider to being a trusted Comrade. I even got my own nickname – umlungu. Umlungu is an offensive name for a white person. I was literally called white bastard. The reason? Well, in the eye of the white guys I became a white bastard for joining NACTU and not joining their side. And it was an endearing way for NACTU to say that I was their ‘white bastard’. I was on their side and got them info from the real umlungus.

Of course this didn’t work well when in public. Being called umlungu in the streets of Jo’burg didn’t always go down well. Imagine walking downtown in a rough area and where over 90% of the people are be black, and then someone shouting ‘hey, you white bastard!’ Needless to say, we had a few close calls where we had to explain to people what we meant – and that there was no reason to help beat up the white bastard.

It also had a bit of a novelty factor. People wanted to see the umlungu that works for NACTU. And the news travelled far. I was asked to do a short introductory speech to a group of trade unionist in the UK – they were donors so we jumped when they asked us to jump! I spotted a guy sitting at the back staring at me and smiling – I could also spot from a mile away that he was from South Africa. I went to speak to him afterwards and he told me he was on a training trip from COSATU. It was odd, we weren’t from the same federation – so why was he here? He smiled as I asked him and replied – ‘I just wanted to see who this Comrade umlungu was that joined NACTU’. We had a good laugh and shared a few beers.

The nickname stayed, but the colour of my skin became less and less of an issue. To such an extend that no one even noticed it anymore – not even myself. It came back every now and again when someone would be shocked to find out who I worked for – but we got to handle that in our own way. I’ll never forget the first time it happened.

I was having a beer with a good NACTU friend of mine when she noticed two guys from COSATU sitting next to her. She knew them. She leaned over and started chatting to them and asked if they wanted to join us. The standard introductions followed, and when they asked me what I did for a living I responded, without thinking, that I worked for NACTU. You should have seen their faces – clearly shocked that I was white. And without thinking they both responded immediately with ‘but you’re white!’ The response from my friend was priceless – without blinking she immediately reacted by swinging around to me and saying, ‘what, he’s white? An umlungu?’ Her face was one of mock shock – and then she burst out laughing and couldn’t stop laughing. You should have seen their faces. Bewildered doesn’t even start to explain.

I never felt so proud of being a white bastard.

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