The aggressive rhetoric being traded between politicians and labour leaders of opposing camps is not helping to foster an atmosphere of reconciliation.
As South Africa continues to try to come to grips with the tragic shooting of 34 miners at Marikana on 16 August, the aggressive rhetoric being traded between politicians and labour leaders of opposing camps is not helping to foster an atmosphere of reconciliation. The role of the current labour relations regime in South Africa in the face of this tragedy also warrants close scrutiny and a possible overhaul to prevent future recurrences.
The past week saw more analysts questioning, as we did last week, the role in this tragedy of South Africa’s supposedly world-class labour relations system. Adcorp economist Loane Sharp, writing in Business Day on Monday, goes as far as saying South Africa’s labour relations system is undemocratic and has failed.
Sharp says its four key institutions, the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), the Labour Court and Labour Appeal Court, and the various bargaining councils have all essentially failed.
We pointed out last week that current labour relations legislation restricts representation of smaller unions in the official bargaining process, creating an imbalance and a potential cause of conflict. It unfairly entrenches the dominance of the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
On South Africa’s platinum mines, including the Lonmin mine at Marikana, the current labour legislation regime and the resultant struggle for recognition of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) formed with workers fed up with the dominant and officially recognised Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), certainly seems to have been a significant factor in the events leading up to the tragic events there.
Sharp seems to agree and writes that “South Africa’s labour relations system is based on the representative principle. Industry associations represent employers, and trade unions represent workers. This is a real problem, since only 26% of the national workforce is unionised and industry associations representing big businesses employing more than 50 people only account for 32% of total employment.
In other words, South Africa’s labour relations system has the primary characteristic of being unrepresentative. This creates conflict, since the vast majority of workers possess no mode of expressing or resolving their grievances. Employers are only obliged to recognise trade unions that represent an outright majority or are ‘sufficiently representative’ of the employer’s workforce.”
Meanwhile, as the official inquiry to be led by retired Judge Ian Farlam has yet to start its work, the tragedy has now deteriorated into a political mud-slinging campaign between the opportunistically self-styled political leader of the disgruntled Marikana workers, Julius Malema, and his “Friends of the Youth League” on the one side, and the ANC and Cosatu on the other.
Malema, the expelled former ANC Youth League (ANCYL) leader, has hijacked the plight of the platinum miners for his own personal political agenda. During the past week he and his colleagues, like expelled former ANCYL spokesman Floyd Shivambu, have sought to upstage the ANC, Cosatu, NUM and the government at every turn. At a memorial service for the slain workers his insults caused a walkout by senior ANC members.
The ANC, with secretary-general Gwede Mantashe – a prime target of Malema and the ANCYL – at the forefront, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have closed ranks. They blame the Marikana tragedy on “counter revolutionaries” who are intent on destroying Cosatu and NUM and weakening the Alliance (between the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP).
But behind this rhetoric is an Alliance (Cosatu in particular) that is shaken to the core by the events at the Lonmin mine and events that preceded it over a wider front. The shootings shocked Cosatu out of its comfort zone and have dramatically rewritten the agenda for its elective national congress due to take place next month.
It also dramatically scrambled the cards in the build-up to the ANC’s own elective conference in December where competing factions within Cosatu hope to play a role for or against having President Jacob Zuma re-elected as ANC president.
At the centre of it all is the proliferation of new independent unions in several sectors – not only mining – by disgruntled former members of Cosatu unions. These workers and their leaders are accusing Cosatu of being much too preoccupied with Alliance politics instead of shop floor-based worker issues.
That Cosatu is concerned over this was clear from remarks earlier this week by its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. He said among other things: "The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is currently facing a massive challenge from splinter unions, formed by disgruntled elements within our ranks”.
Vavi described this as "the biggest onslaught waged by the bourgeoisie against the living standards of the working class" and said the formation of these breakaway unions was "extremely worrying”.
Vavi was referring to Amcu, formed by expelled former NUM leader Joseph Mathunjwa; the National Transport Allied Workers Union (Natawu), a breakaway from Cosatu’s South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu); and other splinter unions formed from the Cosatu-affiliated Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union (CEPPWAWU), the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), plus quite a few more.
These unions will be seeking organisational space and official recognition, the absence of which will lead to inevitable friction and could easily result in more Marikana type conflicts. This seems to call for a total review of current labour legislation and labour relations institutions. It will be interesting to see what the Farlam commission finds in this regard.
The situation is not helped by Cosatu now resorting to aggressive rhetoric in response. This was clearly on display this week when Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini threatened that Cosatu "will deal" with expelled Malema and Amcu president Mathenjwa.
With Amcu members in a fighting mood after months of militant planning and violent execution of their plans at various platinum mines, such “war talk” is clearly a recipe for more trouble in a still highly charged situation.
Meanwhile, the ANC’s Mantashe this past week for the first time acknowledged his role in the events that led to the formation of Amcu and caused the build-up to the Marikana tragedy over a number of years. Mantashe acknowledged that he had been the secretary general of the NUM when Amcu leader Mathunjwa was expelled over a decade ago.
Mantashe had allegedly also been instrumental in blocking another charismatic NUM leader popular among platinum workers from succeeding him at NUM. These events led directly to the formation of Amcu whose workers were on an illegal strike at Marikana when police opened fire on them.
Finally, another issue that may deserve serious attention from the Farlam commission is what appears to be the complete failure of South Africa’s intelligence agencies in foreseeing the dangers of the escalating labour conflict that resulted in the Marikana tragedy. If they did pick up on the signs of brewing trouble, why were no pre-emptive, conflict-resolving steps timeously taken?
Research regarding conditions for workers on the platinum fields commissioned by the independent Bench Marks Foundation (BMF) over the past year was released on 14 August, just two days before the tragic events at Marikana.
The research warned of the growing problems on various platinum mines, including Lonmin, and that the conditions were a “recipe for disaster”. (The report, other related reports and media statements are available on the BMF’s website at www.bench-marks.org.za
If BMF researchers were able to identify the brewing trouble at these mines, official intelligence agencies should have been able to do the same.