by Piet Coetzer

Labour relations dispensation breaks down

Re-evaluating the Labour Relations Act

Durban 1976
Durban 1976.JPG

South Africa’s labour relations dispensation, which has mostly served it well for more than 30 years, is in tatters in the wake of events surrounding the recent violent dispute at the Lonmin mine at Marikana. Problems have been in the making for some time but have now reached a crisis point that calls for some drastic rethinking, repairs or even a total overhaul. 

Although somewhat adapted by the Labour Relations Act (LRA) of 1995, the country’s labour relations structures and regime are still largely in line with the legal framework put in place in 1979 on the recommendations of the then Wiehahn commission.

The commission led by Prof. Nic Wiehahn was appointed in 1977 in the wake of the formation and proliferation of then 'illegal' black trade unions and widespread strikes and labour unrest, especially in KwaZulu-Natal. Not only were black trade unions legalised under its recommendations, they were also made part of the centralised collective bargaining processes, which until then had been the exclusive terrain of white trade unions.

Some of the 'new' black-dominated trade unions at the time organised themselves into the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), which was the forerunner of the  Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.

As had happened before with the white recognised trade unions, a cadre of professional trade union bureaucrats or managers soon emerged from these developments. Notable among them was Cyril Ramaphosa, who would later play a key role in the negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) in the early 1990s.

The one major change to the previous dispensation effected by the LRA was the special recognition of,  and status given to, majority unions in the various economic sectors at the central bargaining table. This arrangement has contributed largely to Cosatu’s cartel-like hold on the supply of labour  and the system of sub-contracting (and use) of labour brokers by employers to side-step the constraints imposed on them by the LRA.

Marikana clearly illustrated that a substantial number of the workers at the Lonmin mine, and probably elsewhere, were feeling marginalised in the process.

Message of Marikana

While the system created in 1979, and affirmed by the LRA in 1995, served the country well, the events triggered by the violent clashes at Marikana and the settlement that followed represent a massive failure of the system. They also are a clear motion of no confidence in the trade unions that were supposed to represent the workers at Lonmin.

The way in which the problems quickly spread to the rest of the so-called Platinum Belt and then to some coal and gold mines and the fact that the eventual deal at Lonmin was struck outside the official bargaining structures -- a key aspect of the LRA-created labour dispensation -- clearly illustrates that the problems are of a structural rather than just a local nature.

The events at Marikana overlapped with Cosatu’s national conference, where it had to concede that a growing gap has developed between trade union leaders and shop floor members. It is also experiencing problems in organising younger members and the growing number of part-time workers. 

A judicial commission of inquiry, appointed by president Jacob Zuma, will investigate and report on what happened at Marikana. It is doubtful if this commission will deal adequately with the wider labour relations issues.

There are also mounting signs that the existing labour relationship dispensation in the country is in trouble and in need of review, adaption and probably a complete overhaul. As much was admitted last week by Cosatu, when the federation announced plans to launch its own commission of enquiry to review the current and historic employment and social conditions of the country’s mineworkers. 

A much wider and more holistic re-evaluation of the dispensation under the LRA will probably needed the solve the present crisis.Getting a handle on the complicated labour situation will require a holistic multi-disciplinary approach. Mere tinkering here and there will not fix the problems.

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