Still active after more than two decades of struggle for the socio-professional rights of Burundi’s teachers, the Syndicat des Travailleurs de l’Enseignement du Burundi (STEB) is slowly recovering from the social crisis that shook the country. With the support of leaders who are committed to reverse the current situation, teachers in Burundi have renewed confidence in themselves and their partners and are ready to stand up for their rights.
In the middle of May 2015, terror stalked the streets of the capital, Bujumbura. The coup, reported by some of the Capital’s radio stations at around noon on May 13th, was quickly crushed by the police. The first hours were very challenging and a general feeling of insecurity spread. The president and treasurer of STEB fled into exile to a secret destination and not even members of the union family knew where they were. After several days, with no news from their leaders and with no means of financial support, following the freezing of the union’s bank accounts, a resolution seemed very far away.
From the Crisis Office to the freeing of frozen funds and activities
Implicated in the conspiracy, restrained in a straitjacket by the Public Prosecutor's office, the union had to reaffirm its right to exist: In its correspondence with the authorities the Crisis Committee continued to stress,"We are not a political party and should not be confused with those that are behind the current conspiracy.” Nor did the union act as a hotbed for those who wanted to justify the failed coup. The urge to be heard first and be understood later, resulted in a change in attitude. This was the first success of the Crisis Office, established in April 2016.
By lobbying the government and engaging in talks with all parties involved, the union succeeded in getting the Public Prosecutor's office to unfreeze the union’s bank account in July 2016. The first congress after the crisis was allowed in December 2016 and resulted in a degree of renewed confidence in the state authorities. For two days, two hundred members from union branches across the country met. The delegates managed to set up a national committee that immediately began to work towards the revival of the organisation.
A difficult rebirth based on a secure commitment.
The members thought they had been abandoned. Nowhere to meet, no more public debate. Teachers’ union rights were in danger of falling victim to rumour, misinformation and even of being completely erased: the new national committee of the STEB had to take the bull by the horns. They had to find the courage to act. To build bridges and get the union machinery back on track.
Local branch visits were organised. Restoring the teacher-union bond became a moral imperative for the future of education, a leitmotif for the rejection of bowing down to authority.
From its informal beginnings, the new committee moved on to actively training its members on their fundamental rights. The grievances of those belonging to a professional association had to be heard. With this goal in mind, several initiatives were put in place and organised to improve the capacity of its members. The results were not long in coming. By the end of 2017, a thousand new members had joined the resurrected Syndicat des Travailleurs de l’Enseignement du Burundi. A new climate of trust had now been established between the union and its members. A revival is taking place with the commitment to engage the authorities as a key partner in education system reform.
The internal recruitment and mentoring of new members continues. The nation-wide celebrations held throughout the provinces for the 25th anniversary of STEB (founded in 1993, during the early days of pluralism in Africa in general and Burundi in particular) marked an important step in bringing its members closer together. The forums for the exchange of ideas and experience, self-discipline, and training in human rights, and other related rights, revitalised the STEB.
"Trade unionists! The struggle goes on! ”
This has been the principal rallying cry of the Teachers’ Union of Burundi since its foundation. These days, the union’s approach is to bend but never break, and to be even more committed to the cause. The resumption of dialogue with the decision-makers has already laid the foundation for talks on the management of overcrowded classes in schools, a consensual wage policy, and the social security status of teachers, to name but a few of the topics now under discussion.
But we still have a long way to go. We need to address changes that have led to the break-up of teacher’s households; teachers who have to carry their babies on their backs during the lessons, because they can’t afford day-care and have no time set aside for breastfeeding; the commodification of education; cheating in state exams. All of this requires that STEB stand firm on the rights of those in the education sector, make sure they do not lose ground. It means to fight anything that tries to reverse the rights of the trade union.
10 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration remains a relevant inspiration for educators and trade unionists worldwide, as it guarantees the right to form unions, freedom of expression and the right of all to quality education. Human rights requires an informed and continued demand by people for their protection. For this special occasion, Education International is releasing a series of blogs bringing voices and thoughts of unionists reflecting on struggles and accomplishments in this domain. The blogs reflect the continued commitment of education unionists, in every part of the world, in every community, to promote, defend and advance human rights and freedoms for the benefit of all.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.