by Stef Terblanche

Economic and social stability threatened

Marikana lesson not learnt

There are lessons to be learnt from the Marikana uprisings
Jacob Zuma.jpg

In October last year, a multi-sectoral stakeholders’ meeting convened by the president announced measures to prevent a recurrence of the Marikana events. Yet, almost eight months later, the mining sector remains beset with serious labour problems, government wants to deploy a 'peacekeeping' force, the economy is under siege, and many other associated issues remain unresolved. Clearly, the lesson of Marikana has not been learnt.

To define the Marikana tragedy – and subsequent labour-related developments – simply as a labour relations or mining sector issue, is to miss the point completely.

That is why two months after Marikana, responding to rising investor and public concerns, President Jacob Zuma convened the high-level meeting of stakeholders from business, civic groups, government, security and labour.

A package of measures to be implemented urgently was announced to ensure a Marikana-like incident did not recur, that public and investor confidence in the economy and in social stability was improved, and that they would use their respective resources and capacities to build a partnership for development.

In the context of the new pressures facing the economy, however, additional steps and sped up implementation are required to ensure that the nation’s economic and social goals are achieved,” it was stated, acknowledging that social, labour and economic issues were inseparably intertwined.

A fundamental problem underlying Marikana and similar areas, identified earlier, was the socio-economic plight and living conditions of mineworkers, many of whom lived as migrant workers under appalling conditions in shanty settlements.

The parties therefore recognised “the joint responsibility of the public and private sectors to improve the living conditions of working communities, including the role of mining companies and municipalities”.

A 'crack team' was to be deployed to municipalities to address housing and infrastructure in mining communities, while the Presidency was to establish a task force to bring together relevant government authorities with leaders from business, organised labour and communities to plan a new partnership “to urgently address the development of sustainable human settlements in key mining districts”.

The parties further agreed to urgently address socio-economic challenges in respect of income inequalities, promote greater social cohesion in communities, work toward measurable progress on infrastructure development and living conditions, fast-track commitments in the social accords agreed upon in 2011, advance social security and health insurance reform, and take action to address reckless lending and growing debt levels.

The explosion of illegal strikes and the like by non-unionised workers, as well as the violent competition for dominance between established and new unions, labour relations arrangements and the collective bargaining systems under the existing labour laws were other fundamental issues.

The parties recognised the importance of “supporting the systems of orderly collective bargaining” and “combating violence in public protests and industrial action”. They agreed to build confidence in labour market institutions.

The parties agreed that steps were to be taken to combat violence and lawlessness, to stabilise communities, and to build wider support for the law enforcement agencies in allowing them to do their work. They furthermore agreed to defend the values of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The parties further agreed to urgently respond to impacts of the international economic crisis. And, there would be measurable progress in youth employment, support for companies and workers affected by the economic slowdown, as well as public employment programmes.

Announcing the package, the Presidency said that apart from the task teams, there would be further regular meetings in association with the National Economic Development and Labour Council for updates on progress made.

Almost eight months down the line, however, the economy is under serious pressure, labour relations are tense and on the verge of more serious turmoil, socio-economic pressures are mounting and the country seems to be moving into crisis mode.

It seems none of the lofty promises made at the 'stakeholders meeting' has been realised. It may be argued that the Farlam commission of inquiry into Marikana has yet to be completed, delaying dealing effectively with the root causes – but the country does not seem to have the luxury of so much time on its side.

In fact, South Africa’s prospects have seriously deteriorated over the past year in the face of unresolved labour unrest and violence; the threat of more strikes; unrealistically high wage demands; ongoing socio-economic pressures and escalating protests; serious production disruptions in a number of industries; shrinking manufacturing output; a sliding rand and rising inflation; weak commodity exports due to shrinking demand falling prices; declining business confidence; a slowdown in gross domestic product growth; downgrades in growth forecasts; international rating agencies warning that the outlook was becoming more negative, among others.

The World Economic Forum has ranked South Africa as having the worst co-operation in labour-employer relations out of 144 countries globally due to the high level of state control, rigid labour laws and loss of free market functioning, with the labour market expected to fracture further and untenable pressures in labour relations to continue mounting.

President Zuma’s response to date has seemed less than adequate.

When labour and economic pressures recently hit the ceiling, he responded with a media briefing where, instead of announcing detailed action plans, he merely called on all in South Africa to pull together; praised South Africa’s “excellent legal framework governing industrial relations”; raised the importance of a stable mining sector; said government had embarked on initiatives to stabilise and strengthen the mining industry and improve mineworkers’ living conditions; pointed out how the National Development Plan (NDP) envisaged growth of above 3.5% (the actual first quarter growth rate this year was 0.9%); and said solid tourism figures suggested there is change in South Africa and “we have a good story to tell”.

When ratings agency Standard & Poor's in March affirmed South Africa's sovereign credit rating at BBB with a negative outlook, the government responded similarly, saying that “the rating opinion did not take adequate account of the positive developments over the past six months” in South Africa.

Among these “positive developments”, government listed the ANC’s adoption of the NDP, aspects of the NDP being detailed in the 2013 Budget, and Zuma’s reaffirmation of economic policies in February.

But reaffirming policies is not the same as implementing them.

Furthermore, only weeks later, the NDP is on the verge of being sabotaged by the ANC’s labour and communist allies, with government already having backtracked on a number of labour and employment-related issues raised by the plan. (See our separate report.

However, not only government but also labour – and to a lesser extent the private sector – are to blame for not carrying out the promises made in October last year:

  • Rival unions remain locked in a war for dominance on the mines, killing each other’s members, and a central bargaining system has yet to be established in the platinum mining sector – the red zone of last year’s problems;

  • The peace accord in that sector remains meaningless after the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and non-unionised strikers at Lonmin refused to sign it;

  • The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), having been replaced as majority union at Lonmin by Amcu, now refuses to abide by the very winner-takes-all labour legislation its parent labour federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), wrote together with the ANC in the first place;

  • Unions continue making economically unsustainable wage demands such as the up to 60% increases currently being demanded by the NUM;

  • Economically damaging strikes continue; and

  • Labour legislation and the entire collective bargaining system remains out of touch with current realities, yet the government and ANC-aligned Cosatu cling to it, ruling out any revision, while the ANC-led government makes more concessions to Cosatu to secure its support in next year’s general election.

 

While government has again promised neutral assistance to the mining sector and unions operating in this sector, convening a team of ministers to intervene, it still openly sides with the ANC-aligned NUM, blaming Amcu for the violence and disruption.

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant mooted a “peacekeeping force”in mining areas. But with the role of the police in the Marikana tragedy still to be fully established and acknowledged, Amcu is likely to view it as an attempt by the state to use force to try and inhibit the union's growth.

Almost three decades ago already, the apartheid government learnt that police or military intervention only buys dubious time; the solution still has to come from the politicians and the parties involved.

And, while heralding the importance of the mining sector and promising to assist mining companies in distress, government threatens to take away the mining licences of a company such as Anglo American Platinum when it needs to restructure and retrench workers as a direct result of the labour unrest and poor economic conditions.

Meanwhile, the crack team that would have been deployed to municipalities to address housing and infrastructure in mining communities is nowhere to be found by mining companies wishing to assist, nor is the presidential task force that was promised.

Many mineworkers, other workers as well as unemployed and impoverished South Africans continue to live in appalling conditions. A majority of municipalities remain unable to manage their finances and provide services, let alone improved housing and infrastructure. The list goes on.

The tragic lesson of Marikana has clearly not been learnt, and history seems likely to repeat itself. 

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