Fresh into the new year and South Africa’s labour relations are once again degenerating. The country will not easily extricate itself from what is essentially becoming a no-win situation.
Established systems and structures no longer seem to work; jobs, industry and the economy face multiple threats; radical rhetoric, wild demands and a blame game are the order of the day; and government finds itself between a rock and a hard place, unable to decisively intervene.
Concern is rising both inside and outside South Africa, with the country getting bad press in most of the key capitals of the world and analysts, investors and credit rating agencies all taking a grim view.
In a recent interview with Business Day Yuri Maltsev, former economic adviser to Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, referring to the farm protests in the Western Cape among other things, said, “South Africa is at a crossroads and can tip over.”
Another example is the pressure by international investors on mining giant Anglo American to quit South Africa or scale down its local exposure.
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) found in its December trade conditions survey that labour militancy was one of the factors that would negatively affect trade conditions in the first part of 2013. The trade activity index had already fallen 15 points from November to 42 in December.
The first three weeks of 2013 have seen the return of violent and destructive farm worker strikes in the Western Cape, with threats of expansion to the rest of the country. The first signs are already brewing in North West province, where the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has taken charge of the strike by workers of one of its affiliates at a Dairybelle plant and is threatening to take labour action to farms if workers’ demands are not met.
Badly bruised by last year’s violent illegal strikes and negative international market conditions, two major South African mining companies, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) and Harmony Gold, in a desperate response have announced the closures of shafts and a mine that could cost thousands of jobs. At Amplats, where 14000 workers stand to lose their jobs, workers last week briefly engaged in an illegal strike in protest.
Other labour-related action so far this year includes:
• A halting of construction at the 4764 MW Medupi coal-fired power plant, desperately needed to avert another electricity crisis;
• Workers marched to several public hearings of the National Electricity Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) to protest against Eskom’s proposed tariff increases which they say will cost jobs and which most people cannot afford;
• Some 1300 employees at troubled South African Airways (SAA) were about to embark on an indefinite strike at the time of writing because SAA’s board ignored a Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) recommendation to recognise their union. The system whereby unions are recognised by employers was a major contributing factor to the widespread labour unrest on the mines last year; and
• In Gauteng, the Health Department, the week before last, closed the Chris Hani Baragwanath Nursing College indefinitely following illegal protests and class disruptions.
Government finds itself in a difficult situation as it cannot be seen to take sides in the farm workers and mine disputes – a situation complicated by the governing alliance between the African National Congress and Cosatu. The government in both disputes has been critical of employers and strikers.
In the Western Cape it is a fact that many farm workers and their families cannot survive on around R70 a day. Neither can most farmers afford the sometimes excessive worker demands. As the situation lingers in stalemate, government is unable to intervene while completing the slow process of adjusting the legally determined minimum wage.
This has opened the door for opportunistic labour and political leaders and organisations to exploit the situation for their own agendas by claiming to speak on behalf of the 340000 permanent workers and 350000 seasonal workers, although only 5% of the workers belonged to unions when the labour unrest started.
Further complicating the situation are signs of simmering tensions among these competing organisations and unions. For instance, the Democratic Left Front and the Workers International Vanguard League have been highly critical of the ANC, Cosatu and the controversial Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (Bawsi) of Nosey Pieterse, a self-styled worker's leader.
Recently, Pieterse and Cosatu Western Cape leader Tony Ehrenreich, who both claim to speak on behalf of the farm workers, differed sharply over whether or not the strike had been suspended. On several occasions striking farm workers have rejected these self-appointed representatives.
As these organisations seek to strengthen their own positions, populist political issues and demands are being added to the various agendas.
Cosatu and others have added land redistribution to the demands in the Western Cape while the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which is challenging Cosatu’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for dominance on the mines, is demanding the nationalisation of Amplats.
Systems and structures under pressure
The fact that workers are articulating grievances and demands through illegal strikes, mass action, violence and destruction instead of through recognised bargaining structures, systems and unions, suggests a loss of faith in existing institutions.
Research findings just published by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) indicate a dramatic decrease in the use of bargaining councils to negotiate wages.
Even the CCMA finds it difficult to play a meaningful role in the current labour unrest and is frequently ignored. South Africa seems to be in urgent need of a complete review and overhaul of its labour relations framework despite having some of the most advanced labour legislation in the world.
Unless cool heads prevail, South Africa could be heading for the fall about which Maltsev and others are warning.