speaking his mind a matter of principle

The trouble with Randall Howard is that he speaks his mind!

Just last week when everyone else was skirting the issues and engaging in all manner of postulation, Howard, general secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) told the taxi people to stop behaving like asses (not his word) and see how they can take advantage of the government's BRT, the disputed bus rapid transit system they seem to love one minute and loathe the next.

He is clearly a man used to speaking - and making sense comes as a given. He doesn't rush into making a point but enjoys the build-up to marshalling his thoughts into coherence.

"I'm just giving you a feel," he'd say in defence of his long-windedness. A stickler for context he sure is.

The only blot in his speech, if at all, is the generous use of the F-word.

Our rendezvous is the Booysens Hotel and Conference Centre where he's part of the union's management training workshop. He calls the session "the other side of unions that you don't normally see", whose aim is "trying to get ourselves efficient and professional".

He was haranguing a colleague for a key to his room as he (Howard) needed to take a shower. His area - Ormonde View, he explains, was without water from the previous night, so he arrived unwashed.

His children had "to do the cowboy thing" to prepare for school that morning, he says.

Those servicing the southern suburbs should celebrate the fact that he's not in any of the civic groups and they do not have to explain themselves to him. Those who've had dealings with Howard - from the late Dullah Omar to incumbent minister of Transport Jeff Radebe and Maria Ramos during her time at Transnet - know only too well what it is like to suffer his wrath.

"We've claimed that victory," he says about the departure of Khaya Ngqula from SAA.

But with an R8million golden handshake that Cabinet has just learnt Public Enterprise Minister Brigitte Mabandla was privy to all along, isn't the former CEO having the last laugh?

Not at all, says Howard, Ngqula's reputation has suffered irreparable damage in the process.

Typical of someone who'd been involved from the very onset, he speaks with authority about the SAA saga, from the day the R60million retention bonuses were paid to a select 127 managers, Ngqula among these.

At the time, a strongly worded communiqué from Satawu had lamented the payment of the bonuses while the business was bleeding as "the kind of greed and self-enrichment which should never be repeated". The tone was consistent with the persona of Howard.

The statement read on: "In this regard we wish to prevail on the board to provide further moral and ethical leadership by halting any further payment of retention bonuses of which R25million has already been paid between June 2007 and January 2009.

"We further call on all 126 recipients to voluntarily agree to opt out of their contracts and through this demonstrate that it was indeed unethical to accept such payments when ordinary workers were not accorded the same treatment, even after having taken a wage freeze to contribute to turning around the airline."

Vintage Howard!

Ngqula is gone; materially richer, yes, but ethically bankrupt. This is the unshaken belief of Satawu which, at 133000 members, is the eighth largest affiliate of Cosatu, the national trade union federation.

None of Satawu members were involved in the drug busts that twice rocked the national carrier, he says proudly.

Maybe untainted by the issue of Zwelinzima Vavi and the credit card, Satawu, says the garrulous general secretary, is a revolutionary trade union, "disciplined and principled".

Perhaps the biggest display of the union's might was the security guards' strike in 2006; "a bloody strike" Howard calls it, in which 60 lives were lost.

In a country of two extremes - the rich and the poor, security officers were "poor working people whose wages do not put them in a position to mitigate their social and economic hardships to have a qualitative decent life".

When they embarked on the strike, the security personnel "were less concerned with the costs to themselves".

Discipline and principles, no doubt!

Founded in May 2000, Satawu looks back at reversing the government's intention to privatise Spoornet and concession rail and ports as their wow entry into the labour movement, says Howard.

They may not have won all the battles, after all, he says, compromise is a product of negotiations. But taking comfort in the knowledge that the right to strike is enshrined in the Constitution, it is aluta continua for Satawu.

A Capetonian from the Flats - he mouths a Benni McCarthy twang for good effect - Howard, 48, is the father of five children.

He came to Johannesburg in 1990.