As labour relations in South Africa have deteriorated in recent weeks, the political marriage of convenience between the governing African National Congress and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has become increasingly untenable. In the last two weeks various cabinet members, including President Jacob Zuma, have raised concerns about developments on the labour front.
Despite government’s expressed concern about the violent competition between rival unions, an unrelenting wave of legal and illegal strikes, excessive wage demands as well as labour unrest and the impact thereof on the economy and job creation, it seems unable to act decisively.
Contradicting its own warnings to labour across the board over the harm being done, the government still openly sided with one union against another.
While its relationship with Cosatu has the government with its back to the wall, its current focus seems to be on next year’s general election(please link to election article) and the important role its labour ally is again expected to play in winning it.
Meanwhile, potentially destabilising trouble seems to be brewing on just about every possible front in the South African labour market, including:
The ongoing violent competition for dominance between the ANC-aligned, Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), crippling the mining sector, slowing growth and risking negative credit ratings;
The risk of further debilitating strikes and unrealistic wage demands as unions and mining companies start the next round of wage negotiations with the threat of its spreading to other sectors;
The ongoing struggle for control between two factions within Cosatu, revolving around its secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi; and
Negative international reaction including stern warnings from the World Bank and rating agencies, among others, for South Africa to clamp down on the labour unrest.
The violent turf wars between Amcu and the NUM continue to strangle the platinum sector after Amcu replaced the NUM as the biggest union at the world’s three largest producers of platinum.
The current labour law dispensation has been severely criticised in many quarters for its shortcomings following last year's violence and deaths at Marikana. Yet, the government does not seem to be contemplating any serious revision.
It now seems, however, that the NUM is falling victim to the existing flaw in legislation favouring the union with the majority as a result of Amcu’s new status in this regard. Present legislation gives sole recognition to any union with 50% plus 1 membership among workers at any given employer.
The present situation has already led to unprotected, albeit brief, strikes and, as is widely assumed, the deaths of a number of people recently murdered in the area, including veteran Amcu shop steward, Mawethu Steven.
As reported recently, the Amcu/NUM battle for dominance could turn the upcoming wage negotiations in the gold and coal sectors into a costly showdown as they try to outdo one another with radical demands. The NUM has already set the tone with a demand for wage increases of up to 60%.
Annual wage talks of many other sectors are also getting under way, with expectations of high demands, militancy and strikes causing fears that labour unrest will soon spread to sectors such as manufacturing. Discontent continues to simmer in the agricultural sector after last year’s wildcat strikes.
And the Gauteng e-tolling issue remains volatile, with Cosatu threatening mass marches in defiance of the law, despite having been refused permission to march. Cosatu’s Gauteng secretary Dumisani Dakile last week said Cosatu’s patience was running out and that it would “give another Marikana … to them on a silver platter”.
The rand hit four-year lows, with labour unrest triggering sell-offs and growth slowing down even further.
Referring to the strike at Lonmin two weeks ago, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant appealed to “the leadership of both unions (NUM and Amcu) to put the interests of the country and workers above their narrow interests”.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told Parliament that unless business, unions, government and civic leaders worked together to resolve the labour unrest to reduce the impact on the economy, “we will see deteriorating confidence, job losses and business failures”.
Then President Zuma warned that higher wage demands leading to conflict could “produce another Marikana”, and that tensions in the mining industry “could impoverish our country”.
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu called for “peaceful co-existence of trade unions in the mining industry” and urged the NUM and Amcu to unite against a common enemy: "monopoly capital". At the same time, however, she chose to take sides and told NUM delegates at a union gathering that she blamed Amcu for the violence on the mines. “We are very much aware that you are under siege by forces that are determined ... to defeat you,” she said.
A week earlier, Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa angrily complained that the government was ignoring the violence against its members, threatened to bring South Africa to a standstill, and demanded a meeting with President Zuma.
Further exacerbating the already explosive situation, ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize last week accused Amcu “supported by ultra-leftist groupings” of anarchy, causing job losses and slowing economic growth
These mixed signals bring into serious doubt the ANC and government’s ability to act as an honest and neutral broker on the labour front while, with a view to next year's election, it is in a formal political alliance with one of the competing labour formations.
The NUM, by its own admission, has already lost 37 000 members to Amcu and risks losing as much as 60% of its membership.
That, together with discontent among workers in other sectors, means Cosatu’s numbers are dwindling – something that could affect the ANC’s clout in the next general election.
That is probably why top ANC officials tried to intervene as peace-brokers in the explosive central executive committee (CEC) meeting of Cosatu last week where a pro-Zuma faction wanted to remove Vavi, who is seen as anti-Zuma and too critical of the ANC.
Vavi survived the attack because neither faction at the meeting – consisting of leaders of affiliated unions and Cosatu provincial structures – had a clear majority.
The issue remains unresolved and will now stand over to the next CEC meeting. Unions supporting Vavi, such as the militant National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, have threatened to resist any attempts to remove Vavi. At worst, that could even lead to a split in Cosatu, which at this point the ANC would want to avoid at all costs.