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South Africa teacher

Not at all a one-way street

In the spring of 1994 Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in jail and a lifetime of struggle against the racist system of apartheid, became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Three months later, a team of BCTF trainers-workshop leaders-checked into a cold and shabby hotel in Johannesburg to work intensively for two weeks with activists from the South African Democratic Teachers' Union.

How in the world did that happen?

The explanation lies in the years of support the BCTF International Solidarity Program had been providing to teachers in South Africa.

During apartheid—legalized and institutional racism—teachers, and all workers, were permitted to join “unions” that were organized by racial groupings. There was a union for “Indian” teachers in Natal, one for so-called “coloured” teachers in the Cape, unions for “African” teachers, several for English and Afrikaans-speaking “white” teachers.

As massive internal organizing campaigns, international solidarity, armed struggle, and a world-wide boycott started to shake the foundations of apartheid, the teachers' unions began to discuss the future—a united future. And the BCTF was there to support those discussions with expertise and resources.

The result was the formation of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union, which brought together about two-thirds of the formerly ethnic-based organizations.

The year before, in 1993, the BCTF International Solidarity Program brought a leader of SADTU, Thulas Nxesi (who is now a South African Cabinet Minister) to BC and organized for him to attend the Capilano College Labour Studies Program. While he was here Nxesi attended a number of BCTF events—for example staff rep training in a couple of our locals. He was impressed.

One day while a couple of us were having lunch with him, Thulas said, “Wouldn't it be great if you could send some people to South Africa to help us develop our own staff rep training program?” And that's how it came to be that I, together with Christina Schut and Carroll Whitwell, ended up in that drafty hotel in Johannesburg in August 1994.

It's important to understand why SADTU, loaded with experienced activists who had just helped overthrow perhaps the world's most solidly entrenched authoritarian, racist regime, would ask for help from our little union from across the world. For a generation the most important function of their former unions had been organizing to defeat apartheid—not doing the day-to-day collective bargaining, staffing, grievance handling, and professional development work we're accustomed to. We were able to help with that.

And why BCTF? Because our support in the past had led them to trust us, and our model of social justice unionism was one they admired.

BCTF members and staff returned to South Africa to work with SADTU many times after 1994—to do more staff rep training, to consult on tech issues, to work on professional development plans. We were one of the unions they invited to help celebrate with them their tenth anniversary in 2001.

I've been asked many times whether this international solidarity work is worth it. Isn't it expensive? How do BCTF members benefit from this kind of initiative? There are many ways to answer. First, through a random accident of history, we live in a peaceful and relatively privileged part of the world. Surely we can use a tiny fraction of our resources to help teachers and kids from less wealthy and privileged countries.

Second, we learned so much from our sisters and brothers in SADTU. It's not at all a one-way street. To give just one example—in 1998 when I was in South Africa doing some workshops, SADTU was holding a series of what they called “teacher forums.” Members of their National Executive visited every local across the country and just listened to the membership. They didn't make speeches or announce plans or initiate campaigns. They just listened. It was a brilliant strategy, and I got to see it first hand.

Later that year when we were preparing for the bargaining round that would end with Bills 27 and 28, the stripping of our collective agreements and all that led to, we organized “bargaining forums” in every local. We stole the idea completely from SADTU. I believe those forums contributed to the enormous resilience that our members exhibited in the extremely difficult years that followed. SADTU helped us to see how important it is to listen to the members and to organize ourselves to do that listening.

Finally, when we help strengthen teachers' organizations (or any unions) anywhere, we contribute to public education and justice everywhere. The international corporate class and their governments have spent enormous resources creating a globalized world system that serves their interests. We can respond to that challenge with our own kind of globalization: international solidarity. 

By David Chudnovsky, retired BCTF President
Reprinted from Teacher magazine,Volume 29, Number 2, January/February 2017.

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