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PHILA BUTHELEZI’S MISSED OPPORTUNITY

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Wise men and women say you miss one hundred per cent of the chances you do not take.

By failing to honour an invitation to be a guest at either of the Workers Day celebrations last Monday, Minister of Labour and Social Security Phila Buthelezi missed a huge opportunity to make a lasting impression on workers. At a time when most politicians in Eswatini are unpopular for one reason or another, Buthelezi made the wrong decision. Incidentally, the minister had become an instant darling of the working class a few days earlier, when he visited The Fridge Factory in Matsapha on a fact-finding mission. He paid a surprise visit to the company to follow-up on workers’ complaints. He visited The Fridge Factory on the National Flag Day holiday. Workers there had alleged that management did not recognise this day as a holiday. This meant that employees were supposed to be at work but expect no extra pay. Addressing management and employees afterwards, the minister said he did not want to see workers being taken advantage of. That seems to have been the same motivation for his visits this past Thursday, to Ruchi Wholesalers and Pitbull Security company premises, also in Matsapha.

decrying

There, the aim was to monitor employer-employee relations, which is basically the same thing he had visited The Fridge Factory for. At both the companies he visited on Thursday, Buthelezi had separate meetings with workers and employers. He got first-hand reports of the challenges faced by both parties, with employers decrying lack of industry regulations for the security sector, taxation and non-representation in the Wages Councils. As expected, workers had cited remuneration as their main concern. They told the minister that the minimum wage was not enough to meet all their financial obligations. Ruchi Wholesalers was specifically singled out for making employees work on three-month or six-month contracts. This practice affected even people who have worked for the popular wholesaler for up to 10 years. They are worried that when they retire or leave the company for whatever reason, they will go home empty-handed. Several other issues were raised.

I am pretty sure the minister is aware that the grievances raised in Matsapha are common in many other companies across the country. He has previously done tours of companies in the sugar belt, predominantly in the Lubombo Region and may have come across similar challenges even there. These `inspections in loco’ by the minister have earned him an enormous amount of praise. Even social media, which is not normally kind to Eswatini politicians, has been generous with praises for Buthelezi. It is such a pity that he could not capitalise on this positivity and attend Workers Day celebrations.

inspections

One would have thought that a minister concerned about issues affecting his portfolio, to the extent that he gets out of his office to do physical inspections under the scorching sun, he would take such an opportunity with both hands. He would have been expected to see this as his chance to listen to workers speak as a collective and also address them as a large group.
It is common knowledge that during Workers Day events, there is little celebration and a lot of grievances. A minister who ‘does not want workers taken advantage of’ would have jumped at the chance to travel to Mayaluka in Big Bend or Rider’s Ranch in Sidvokodvo to be with the people whose issues fall under his portfolio. Instead, workers heard three days before May 1, 2023, that the minister would not attend. His excuse was that he had not received invitations on time.

It turned out that the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), which was to hold its event in Big Bend, had actually written an invitation letter to the minister’s office on April 20, 2023. The federation requested the presence of the minister or his representative. The government official, who would attend, was to be given an opportunity to address workers and also meet union leaders. The Federation of Swaziland Trade Union (FESWATU) was to hold its event in Sidvokodvo. It sent an invitation to Buthelezi on April 27, 2023. It is now history that the minister stuck to his guns and did not attend either celebration. Instead, he sent a statement to the various media houses, articulating his ministry’s plans and challenges where workers’ issues are concerned. One of the things he promised was that government planned to reduce the unemployment rate to 20 per cent by the year 2025. It currently stands at a worrying 33 per cent, which is unacceptable for a small economy like ours that should be easily manageable. Now, let us picture two neighbours who do not see eye to eye, as is usually the case.

invitation

They have constant run-ins over various issues but a time comes for one to host a thanksgiving party at his place. He sends an invitation to the neighbour but that neighbour refuses to attend, saying the invitation came too late. Who is the good guy here; the bigger person? We know that it has been quite a while since ministers of Labour in Eswatini joined workers in these celebrations. There seems to be an unwritten rule that they should not attend. Buthelezi should have bucked the trend and attended. What did he have to lose? Is there something the minister knows, which the rest of us are unaware of? After all, he is an elected Member of Parliament (MP), who is in that ministerial position because the people of Matsanjeni North had faith in him back in 2018. They trusted that he was a man of the people who would go to Parliament to represent them and look out for their interests. I do not recall what Buthelezi told voters when he campaigned for election but most aspiring MPs usually say, “Ngicela ningitfume, ngitawuba ngumfana wenu.”(Please send me to Parliament. I will be your faithful servant). Among the many voters who chose him over other candidates were scores of workers, who are probably disappointed.By the way, who gave politicians the wrong idea that they were not workers themselves?

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