Friday 16 April 2021
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Government and Nantu dispute: A mismanaged process

Current dispute between the Government of the Republic of Namibia and the Namibia National Teachers’ Union  (NANTU): How did we arrive here and what lessons have we learned for the future?

The purpose of this article is to reflect on the current dispute between the Government and NANTU with the view to draw lessons for the future.  What we are witnessing in my view are symptoms of a mismanaged process. The negotiation seems to have been based at the initial stages on wrong assumptions. It also lacked analysis and prediction of what could happen. Learning societies value the application of knowledge to solve problems, to continuously learn and to perfect processes and systems. It is important to recall that Namibia attempts to move from adversarial labour relations of the ‘’them and us’’, which characterised labour relations during the pre-independence era to social dialogue.  The Labour Act, Act No.6 of 1992 was one of the first pieces of legislation, which was promulgated immediately after independence. The objective was to usher in a new labour relation regime based on the values of democracy, the rule of law and inherent human dignity. It was also to create institutional frameworks to promote sound labour relations.

Furthermore, the Government and NANTU signed an exclusive bargaining agreement in 1995 to regulate the relationship between the parties. How did we arrive at where we are despite the existence of legislative frameworks? As per the certificate of unresolved dispute, the dispute arose on 23 March 2016, it was referred to the Conciliator on 08 June 2016 and meetings were held on 26 July, 11 August and 22 August 2016 attempting to resolve it. How can we explain that a dispute that arose in March 2016 could not be resolved within six months?  Did the parties to the negotiations not anticipate the educational implications? Who should take responsible for the mismanaged process? I am of the considered view that the parties to the dispute did not equally enter the negotiations in good faith.  Offering an increment below inflation rate and sticking to the initial position despite convincing arguments could be construed as negotiating in bath faith. No serious union will accept a below inflation offer unless evidently proven otherwise.  Reasons of the drought and prevailing economic situation are valid, but the Government Negotiating Team in this case did not have the moral and ethical authority to convince anyone. Fundamentally, it is because Namibia does not behave in practice like a Nation that faces serious economic and social challenges. Practice should follow public pronouncements to earn legitimacy. We cannot morally convince others to tighten their belts while we are buying new belts, because the old ones cannot fit.  The fact that the increment of public office-bearers was first, and that it was inflation-related and other spending priorities made it difficult to convincingly sell the drought and economic situation argument. Secondly, social dialogue requires leadership with the virtues of humility and understanding and requisite expertise and skills.

The 2009 tenth session Report of the Joint ILO and UNESCO Committee of Experts on the Application of the Recommendations Concerning the Status of the Teaching Personnel noted general lack of social dialogue in education.  The Committee therefore recommended that ILO and UNESCO in collaboration with social partners deliver training for both employers and teacher unions on the conduct of social dialogue in all its forms. Another matter of great concern was the arrogance that was displayed during the negotiations.

This resulted in not seeking a win-win outcome. Social dialogue further requires diplomacy, tact, and understanding of what to say, when, packaging the message and choice of the medium to be used to convey the message. In this case, Government has failed to develop a coherent and consistent communication strategy. As a result, everyone was a spokesperson sometimes at inappropriate stages.  This has aggravated the situation. Another matter of concern was the perceived non-adherence to policies and processes and possible future implications thereof on labour relations. The Labour Act, Act No. 11 of 2007 provides for dispute resolution procedures and competent authorities to manage them. In a constitutional democracy based on the principle of the rule of law, everyone including administrative bodies is subjected to the rule of law.  During the current dispute, it has appeared as if some administrative bodies are above the law. What will Government as the custodian of labour relations tell security companies when they attempt to influence dispute resolution processes?

The lessons that we should have learned is firstly, to take negotiations seriously. Secondly, to appoint negotiating teams with the requisite social attributes and expertise and who have time for social dialogue. It should not be based on whoever is available.  Thirdly, both Government and teacher unions should invest in social dialogue capacity building. Negotiation is a skill and not a by the way activity. Fourthly, analysis and prediction are critical to avoid being caught completely unprepared.  The decision to offer an increment to one group while negotiations were ongoing was ill-considered and should not be repeated, as it closed doors for alternative options. Finally, Namibia is a constitutional democracy founded upon the rule of law. Our actions during disputes should not create precedents that have unintended consequences for labour relations in the future. Cool headedness is required.

Dr. Marius Kudumo is the     Director of International Relations at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. He holds a Master of Policy Studies degrees specializing in International Relations from the Southern African Regional Institute for Policy Studies in Zimbabwe.

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