What began, this year, as annual wage negotiations that promised to be less volatile and disruptive than it had in previous years, has deteriorated into one of the darkest chapters in South African labour relations. The death of 46 people at Lonmin’s Marikana mine is still an open wound and with the current violent truckers’ strike, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is promising more trouble.
At the time it seemed the only serious threats in this year’s negotiations season had been successfully averted; the government, represented by Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, reached agreement with public sector workers and the same occurred with municipal workers and in the petroleum sector. In all three instances strikes had been averted and it seemed the rest of the year would mostly be plain sailing.
We indicated in mid-August
that this year’s strike season had been one of mixed developments with much less strike action, and a number of wage deals in different sectors being structured as multi-year agreements. It promised even more stability in the future.
However,Cosatu’s heavy involvement in the internal politics of the African National Congress and the run-up to its own national congress, weakened the federation and its unions.
In the report we also pointed out that platinum mines were being negatively affected by a turf war between rival unions for recognition and membership, leading to increased militancy and violence. At that stage it had already caused the death of three people and several illegal strikes. We foresaw more trouble.
While Cosatu’s eye was off the labour ball and distracted by political manoeuvres, Marikana exploded
. The almost incestuous relationship between organised labour and political structures probably needs urgent attention.
Negotiations season changed
The political involvement of Cosatu with national politics led to a widening gap between union leaders and workers at shop floor level, putting an end to what could otherwise have been a trouble-free wage negotiations season.
Troubles on platinum mines since the beginning of the year rapidly escalated after the Marikana shootings, spread to other mines including in the gold mining sector and which still continue.
Apart from the ongoing strikes at some platinum mines, 30 000 workers went on strike in the gold mining sector making similar demands as their colleagues in the platinum sector. The demands revolved around a wage increase to R12 500 a month as first demanded at Lonmin. After the fatal shootings Lonmin workers eventually settled for a 22% increase, giving them slightly less.
A significant new trend soon emerged, witnessed last week especially at Anglo American Platinum mines near Rustenburg; workers are ignoring and bypassing unions and forming their own committees to deal with management.
Meanwhile, on Monday 24 September, 20 000 road freight and logistics industry workers also went on strike. The strike, involving mostly truck drivers, soon turned violent with non-strikers being attacked and property being damaged or destroyed.
Three people were injured by strikers, police had to intervene and several major roads in Gauteng were closed to traffic.
After an initial, tentative weekend deal on a wage increase of 9% staggered over two years, the unions rejected it on Tuesday and reverted to their demand of 12%.
The unions taking part in the strike are the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), the Professional Transport and Allied Workers Union SA (PTAWUSA), the Transport and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (TAWU) and the Motor Transport Workers Union (MTWU).
On the back of the immense losses in the mining industry the past few weeks, any prolonged strike in the transport sector could have further serious consequences for the South African economy. The month end weekend that has just passed, has already seen the most basic economic activities seriously disrupted as banks and automatic teller machines ran out of cash, amongst others.
Cosatu has come out in full support of the transport strike but seems to be at a loss about taking a firm position in the crisis-hit mining sector.
Despite somewhat shell-shocked self-analysis at its recent national congress after Marikana, the labour federation quickly went back to focusing on national political issues.
Re-elected general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told delegates that Cosatu was planning a nation-wide strike by its 2.2 million members to force the government to change its current economic policies. This includes:
• A demand for a radical shift in monetary policy, a review of the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank and its nationalisation;
• state intervention in strategic sectors of the economy, including nationalisation and state ownership; and
• an overhaul of macroeconomic policy.
It also wants government to 'stop' capital leaving the country and wants to see employers investing R1.2 trillion which it says they are holding back in an 'investment freeze'.
A lukewarm official response by the ANC met these demands, although it should be noted that internally the ANC is divided on many of the issues.
Cosatu, last week, also vowed to fight with everything at its disposal the Constitutional Court decision that overturned an earlier High Court ruling stopping implementation of the controversial e-tolling road tax system in Gauteng. This too may include strikes and protests.
The labour scene remains highly volatile with Africa’s biggest economy having to absorb one massive shock after the other. Its labour relations dispensation seems to be in urgent need of some repair an restructuring.