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Rev. E.M. Biyela, A Trade Unionist, A NATU Stalwart and A Resilient Leader

Early years, Family and Education

Reverend Eliam M. Biyela was born on 5 May 1955, in Nkandla, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. He later matriculated from Dlangezwa High School and, through hard work, dedication, determination and self-sacrifice, he subsequently, obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Geography and English; a University Education Diploma (UED) and later an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in 1987 – all the three qualifications from the University of Zululand (UNIZULU). From there he graduated with a Bachelor of Education degree in 1989 from the University of South Africa (UNISA). In 1997, he obtained a Post-graduate Diploma in Education Management.

He was married to MaMngomezulu, who also served as a teacher and then Superintendent of Education Management (SEM) in the Empangeni District of KwaZulu Natal province. The couple was blessed with four children.

Professional Experience

Rev Eliam Biyela’s professional experience stretched as far back as 1980 when he was first appointed as a teacher at Umbiya High School, Enseleni Circuit, KwaZulu- Natal – teaching English and Geography in Standards 8,9 and 10. He served as Vice Principal at this school between 1983 and 1985. During approximately the same period, he also worked as a part-time Lecturer in the Department of Geography at UNIZULU, between 1984 and 1985.

In 1986, Rev Biyela was appointed Principal of Mtshakela High School in Ubombo Circuit, KwaZulu Natal. In 1987, he served as part-time coordinator of Shell Mathematics and Science Resources Centre for the KwaMbonambi Unit. Reverend Biyela also served as part-time Natal Regional Coordinator of Teacher Opportunity Programmes between1987 and 1988. From 1987 to 2010 – a period of 23 years, Rev Eliam Biyela served as NATU’s Executive Director, a portfolio that he discharged with a very high level of excellence and admirable professional standard.

Image: NATU Archives

Professional Affiliations and Contributions

One of the biggest ways in which Rev Eliam Biyela contributed immensely to the fields of Education and Organised Labour was by serving on many professional bodies. These included the following:

  1. Between 1981 and 1985, Rev Biyela was the Correspondence Secretary of Lower Umfolozi NATU branch, at Empangeni.
  2. In 1983, he served as Chief Examiner for Geography for Standard 8 in the KwaZulu Education Department.
  3. From 1983 to 1987, he served as an Executive member of the KwaZulu Geography Subject Committee and Secretary of the Bhejane Tribal Community Development Committee.
  4. Between 1986 and 1990 he served as a representative on the KwaZulu Education Journal.
  5. From 1985 to 1991, he served as a Trustee for the Teacher Development Foundation.
  6. From 1987 to 1990, he was the NATU Councillor at the African Teachers’ Association of South Africa (ATASA).
  7. From 1991 to 1994 he served as the NATU Representative on the Forum for Recognized Teacher Associations.
  8. From 1993 to 2020, he served as Executive member of the Mfundoyesizwe School Building Trust.
  9. In 995, he served as a member of the Ministerial Committee on school Governance and Funding.
  10. Still, in 1995, he served as a member of the KwaZulu Natal Interim Provincial Strategic Planning and Management Committee of the Education Department.
  11. From 1996 to 1998, he was the Chairman of the Conditions of Service Committee.
  12. From 1997 to 2004, he was a member of the Enseleni Regional Authority.
  13. In 1998, he served as Director of the Masicathulisane Development Consultants (Pty) Ltd.
  14. From 1998 to 2020, he was Director of Emayini Investments (Pty) Ltd.
  15. From 1999 to 2020, he served as Director of Masethembe Investments (Pty) Ltd.
  16. From 1999 to 2001, he served as NAPTOSA Chief Negotiator in the Education Labour Relations Council (ELRC) and the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC).
  17. From the year 2000 to 2010, he was Vice President of the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), responsible for Development.
  18. From 2001 to 2003, he served as NAPTOSA President. As President of NAPTOSA, he commanded both national and international respect in the manner he advanced the cause of the teaching profession. This was a task he addressed with his customary seriousness and dedication, punctuated by his calm and reassuring demeanour.  He became a well-known figure in education circles on the African continent, serving for a number of years in the context of the Pan-African Federation of Education and Teacher Training Unions (PAFETTU), and very rapidly rose to high office within that body.  At the same time he became equally well-known to contacts in Europe through his involvement with the World Confederation of Teachers, the WCT.  The stature that he enjoyed well beyond the boundaries of South Africa was a testimony to the sterling qualities that he typically displayed as he went about carrying out his duties and responsibilities. Rev Biyela was, indeed, a man of exceptional calibre and standing in the teaching fraternity. It was during his Presidency that NAPTOSA’s Business Wing known as “NAPTOSA Buying Community” was established.
  19. From 2002 to 2003, he served as Deputy Secretary of the Pan African Federation of Trade Unions (PAFETTU).
  20. Between 2002and 2003, Rev Biyela was a member of the Confederal Board of Ward Confederation of Teacher (WCT). He was one of the four representatives of the African Continent.

It is quite evident from the fore-going that Rev Biyela was a man of many talents, endowed with a lot of energy, wisdom, commitment and dedication to the teaching profession. This shows from the trust that his contemporaries showed in him by virtue of the many positions that he held over the period of his work life – going beyond his retirement in 2010. He was, indeed, held in high esteem by many people he worked with and those he was privileged to serve.

Image: NATU Archives

Rev. Eliam Biyela – NATU’s Executive Director

As Executive Officer, Rev Eliam Biyela had a very distinguished career. He was appointed Executive Director at NATU Head Office in 1987 at a time when South Africa stood on the verge of momentous political changes, and not long after his appointment, things began to move steadily towards the first ever democratic elections of 1994, albeit with a number of social setbacks and shocks along the way.  During the period between 1987 and 1994, things were unsettled. Rev Biyela, who had not yet become a fully-fledged member of the cloth by that time, was pitch-forked into a rapidly running river.  He had two options – swim and survive, or be swept away by the torrent current. He chose to survive, and did so in a manner which remains an example to us all; an example which encourages and inspires. The United Democratic Front was very active in a variety of ways; the African National Congress had intensified aspects of its clandestine domestic campaign, the country’s economy was in tatters, the first beginnings of the planning for the meetings that would take place in Lusaka and elsewhere were manifesting.  The South African Democratic Teacher’s Union (SADTU), had commenced its active campaign in favour of organic teacher unity, and sought to bring about an organizationally united teachers’ union in the region we have since 1994 known as KwaZulu-Natal. These developing events did not pass by unnoticed in our own organization, and Rev Eliam Biyela found himself very much involved in the discussions of these matters, as a participant in the frequent meetings that took place in many structures. Within the aegis of the teacher unity talks, NATU was very much an active player in the developing network of relationships which later birthed the first NAPTOSA, as well as in the discussions within the organization – leading to the establishment of an enlarged NAPTOSA in 1995.

From the time he became NATU’s Executive Director, Rev Eliam Biyela was a key role player in most of these discussions, frequently presenting NATU positions and where necessary defending the views of the organization and ensuring balanced feedback to our own structures at appropriate times.  He commenced his service with our organization during the Presidency of Professor A.J. Thembela, and saw not only the ultimate retirement from office of Professor Thembela, but also witnessed the induction and eventually the resignation from office of Dr Musa Shezi, Professor Thembela’s successor. Subsequently, Rev Biyela worked with the succeeding NATU President, Mr Siphosethu L. Ngcobo who, subsequently became the longest-serving NATU President.

Nationally, quite apart from his involvement in the national teacher federation which lasted until NATU withdrew from it, Rev Eliam Biyela was also a member of the structures of the Federation of Unions in South Africa (FEDUSA), where he also made important contributions to the debates, including the development of inputs to the National Economic Development and Labour Advisory Council, NEDLAC. When one remembers that none of all these activities of his involvement as NAPTOSA President, senior role-player in PAFETTU, involvement in the WCT, serving in the structures of FEDUSA and in that way making inputs into NEDLAC was part of his primary duty as NATU’s Executive Director, it all points to a truly remarkable and outstanding person.  As though these achievements were not sufficient, he also found the time to qualify as a Commissioner with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) after following a rigorous and highly demanding course which stretched over a lengthy period.  Additionally, he pursued the requisite theological studies to qualify for ordination as a Minister of Religion, and to be addressed as the Rev Eliam Biyela.  Surely, as we survey these aspects of his career, we have no other conclusion than that he was a person of rare and exceptional talents, wisdom and understanding.

Image: NATU Archives

Rev. Biyela – A Calm, Modest but Highly Influential Giant

Of all the NATU Presidents, Mr S.L. Ngcobo, was the one who worked with Rev Biyela the longest and he recalls him as modest, self-effacing and quiet; one who did not say much, but one you had to listen to when he spoke. On a platform one saw him transformed, holding his audience not only by the power of his personality, but by the logic and integrity of what he was saying.  Over time, Rev Biyela’s stature, both at Head Office and in the organisation al large, steadily increased, as he became a positive and a powerful influence in the organisation. As President Ngcobo further eulogises Rev Biyela, “From the tips of his toes to the crown of his head Eliam Biyela is the perfect professional man and the perfect gentleman, and I shall never forget that.  He is a colleague I shall greatly miss.  I have learned much from him, and he has given much.”

Certainly, Rev Biyela’s wonderful combination of qualities of character, values, attitudes, empathy, intellect and humour which he displayed to the people who were privileged to know him over the twenty-three years that he devoted to the NATU Head Office was both rare and unique. 

Image: NATU Archives

Travel and Professional Enrichment

Rev Biyela had been to: Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Tokyo, Namibia, Romania, Bulgaria, USA, Mauritius, Switzerland, Great Britain and Malaysia – mainly on the business of teacher education and training, as well as organized labour matters. In the main, all these travels were for the purpose of professional enrichment in the form of seminars, workshops and conferences. So, more specifically:

  • In 1983, Rev Biyela attended a seminar of the Southern African Region, under the Auspices of the World Conference of the Organisations of the Teaching Profession (W.C.O.T.P) Swaziland.
  • In 1985, he was part of a study tour to the United States, for three weeks, organized the United States Youth Council.
  • In 1988, he attended two fortnight long seminars with the American Federation of Teachers in Maseru, focusing on collective bargaining.
  • Still, in April 1988, Rev Biyela was one of ATASA representatives at a meeting of long-established South African teacher organisations in Harare, Zimbambwe, under the convenorship of the African National Congress (ANC), South African Confederation of Trade Unions (SACTU) and all Africa Teacher Organisations (AATO) to discuss the possibility of establishing one teacher union in SA. At the end of this eight-day meeting, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was confirmed as Convenor of subsequent meetings to establish one teacher organisation in SA. A 15-point declaration was adopted which provided that the political ideologies of organisations would not be a precondition to unity. However, although NATU participated actively in the proceedings of this meeting, it found the pace of the talks to be too speedy for the Union to consult adequately. So, when the Unity Agreement was ready for signing, NATU did not sign and, instead, requested for more time to consult and educate members about it. The Union was granted Observer status for 12 months. Subsequently, the NATU national conference finally decided not to be part of, but pledged to maintain healthy relations with, the new body to be known as SADTU. However, twenty-nine NATU members attended the launch of SADTU in Johannesburg in 1990. So, as one of the ten ATASA representatives at this meeting, Rev Biyela was certainly one of the significant voices which resulted in NATU not being sucked into SADTU – a status NATU continues to enjoy to the present day.
  • In 1990, he attended the Standard Bank Management Seminar.
  • Between 1983and1990, he attended seven leadership seminars under the banner of ATASA.
  • In 1993 he attended seminars in Switzerland and Great Britain on Employer-Employee Resolutions in Education – funded by the erstwhile Department of Education and Training (DET).
  • In 1998, the Reverend attended the World Techer Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – from 3 to 11 August.
  • In 1999 he attended a ten-day International Labour Organisation (ILO) workshop on Dispute Resolution in the Public Service.


Rev Biyela was a keen believer in professional and school development through in-service education. As highlighted under Professional Affiliations and Contributions, he was instrumental in setting up, or belonging to, many societies and organisations – in which he invariably played significant leadership roles.

Image: NATU Archives

Training and Authorship

Another area where Rev Eliam Biyela made significant contributions was in training and educating NATU members. As an educator and trainer, Rev Eliam Biyela was a gifted facilitator at different levels: workshops, seminars, lectures or discussions. His approach always ensured that the occasion got the maximum response from the audience and that great benefit accrued to all who were involved.  In this he was greatly assisted by a very high intelligence quotient (IQ) and a wonderful sense of humour.  On every occasion he always revealed great insight and was able to speak a word which would release tension, and take the matter forward. Not infrequently, when his audience could fathom a solution at all, he would listen, consider, and then in his own way present a solution which often seemed so obvious that the participants could not help wondering why they had not thought of it. In short, he displayed exceptional facilitation skills which were greatly fortified by his personality and overall expertise.

As a writer and producer of documents, Rev Biyela was abundantly gifted.  As part of this, he authored numerous documents which benefited members greatly. Two such significant documents were:

Biyela, E.M. (2004). Towards Self-Reliance: The story of the evolution of the National Teachers’ Union towards a self-reliant, autonomous and independent national union, Empangeni, Atlas Printers.

This is one of Rev Biyela’s most treasured works, dealing with the seminal moments in the history and thinking of NATU over decades, and which among other things systematises the influential thinking of the late Professor Alex Thembela. The former and longest serving NATU President, Mr S.L. Ngcobo, eulogises Rev Eliam Biyela as an analytical thinker who never had any difficulty reducing to cogently analysed and formulated decisions the discussions which took place within NATU structures, at whatever level. No matter how wide-ranging the discussions, his formulations were always outstanding.  President Ngcobo further acknowledges Rev Biyela as a gifted writer who generated documents that were always closely reasoned, intelligently argued, and cogently presented.  What was more, whether the audience was internal, at the level of the education department, the MEC or Premier, Rev Biyela’s proposals were not only lucid and understandable, but also highly practical. Indeed, so valuable is this piece of work to NATU that parts of it are frequently used by the organisation in its leadership.

Biyela, E.M. (not dated). “The National Teachers Union HIV/AIDS programme.’’ NATU Head Office, Empangeni.

This piece of work was a timely intervention against the scourge of HIV and AIDS, which devastated many sections of society, including education, before some stability was restored.

Rev. Biyela – The True NATU Ambassador

It is impossible to reflect on his career in NATU without referring to the example he set us all as a true ambassador of NATU.  No matter where he found himself or in what circumstances, we knew that he would always act as a NATU ambassador – professional, purposeful, directed.  Indeed, in the difficult times of transformation which have been going on for a long time, it was him who often became a catalyst for change, helping NATU to understand the implications of what was happening, and how to adapt in changing times.

Image: NATU Archives


In conclusion, NATU cannot thank Rev Biyela enough for what he contributed to the organisation and to the wider cause of education in the country, the continent of Africa and worldwide. We thank Rev Biyela for the manner in which he carried out his duties and responsibilities – for the respect he showed us, his modesty, calmness and self-effacing style, his well-reasoned arguments, his detailed presentations of viewpoints and his capacity to relate so well to so many; for being so deeply and firmly rooted in his faith and system of morality. We leave the rest to God, The Almighty, to reward him in every way possible, for his good works, deeds and dedication.

Finally, in acknowledgement of the adage that “behind every successful man is a loving and caring woman”, we would like to conclude the tribute to Rev Eliam Biyela by equally paying tribute to Mrs Biyela, MaMngomezulu, who was Eliam’s constant encouragement, compassionate helper and loving companion for many years.  Education makes demands which are hard on wives and families, because so often the cause comes before the personal, and it would not have been possible for the Rev Biyela to achieve what he did without her support.  It is therefore fitting that in paying tribute to him, we also pay tribute to Mrs Biyela and to their family for the manner in which they made it possible for him to self-actualise.

Long Live the Spirit of Rev. Eliam Mzikayifani Biyela Long Live!!