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DUT strike: So near, yet so far, but parties are upbeat they will sign

Thabo Mohlala

Durban University of Technology is on knife-edge as parties are under pressure to settle and bring to an end one of the longest labour disputes within the higher learning sector. Negotiations between unions and the DUT management collapsed several times but the mediation of the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Buti Manamela, saw the parties committing to a new framework to break the impasse.

Manamela told the media this week his biggest concern was that “there were no negotiations at all” between the unions and the management, adding “the parties were not talking to each other”.

Khaya Xaba, spokesperson for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), reacted with both caution and optimism. He said they welcome the resumption of talks with DUT but also hastened to say it was only when the employer implemented the agreement that the strike would officially end.  

“We have suspended the strike action until we get what we demanded from the employer. Our members have gone back to work to allow the negotiations to proceed and we hope we would find a middle ground and end the impasse soon. But we have not reached a point where we could say the strike has ended,” said Xaba.

Xaba’s cautious optimism seemed to be fuelled by some of the issues reflected in the framework that the parties agreed to as part of their negotiations. These include, among others, three sticking points: across the board salary increase, once-off bonuses and housing allowances.

But Xaba, said Nehawu members were happy and supported the new developments particularly to help catch up with the students’ registration backlog. The strike affected scores of students who could not register online because didn’t have access to Internet.

“The intervention was long overdue and it came at the right time. That is what we needed and we are also positive that CCMA is also involved in the talks,” added Xaba

The university offered to pay 6.5% salary increases against the unions’ demand of 8.5%; on the once-off bonus, DUT proposed R7,500 while the unions demanded R9,000. The unions also demanded a R400 housing allowance while the employer offered R200 and finally, the potential deal breaker: no work, no pay principle, which the university implemented and docked workers’ salaries will also be on the agenda.

DUT’s vice-chancellor, Professor Thandwa Mthembu told the media on Wednesday that the institution is stretched financially to meet the workers’ current list of demands. He said their 6.5% across the board offer, which labour rejected, will cost DUT R12 million and if they were to accede to the workers’ demands, the university would have to fork out R62 million, which would bankrupt the institution.

Observers credit Manamela’s successful mediation saying his major coup was to get the strike suspended and allow students to go back to classes. Classes will resume next week Monday.

Universities South Africa (USAf), which represents all 26 universities, was anxious about the prolonged dispute. It said if the deadlock was not broken soon, the institution was going to be compelled to close its 2018/19 academic programme given the time lost. No lectures have taken place since universities reopened at the beginning of February this year.

Mqondisi Duma, Provincial Secretary of the South Africa Students’ Organisation (Sasco) also sounded positive about the negotiations. “We are happy that in the end the parties are talking. Remember, in the past there were no talks between the workers and the management.

We are optimistic that they will find one another and settle soon. We appeal to them that no party should be selfish but they must think about the interests of all the stakeholders of the university particularly the students who lost a lot of time without studying,” said Duma.

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