by Piet Coetzer, Stef Terblanche

Protests continue

Heading for a Christmas of discontent?

Heading for a Christmas of discontent?
De Doorns protest.jpg

It started as widespread amorphous service delivery protests, but now it has become a more focused, targeted and better organised action. There was the wave of illegal strikes in the mining industry after Marikana. Then, just as things seemed to subside in the mining sector, South Africa was rocked by a second wave of violent wildcat strikes by farm workers starting at De Doorns in the Western Cape. Is the country’s own version of the 'Arab Spring' already in progress? 

Increasingly, the question is being asked whether Moeletsi Mbeki was not spot on when he wrote in February last year that South Africa’s 'Tunisia moment' is less than a decade away. It will come “when the South African masses turn against the liberation movement, in less than 10 years,” he wrote at the time. 

For now, there is a lull in the protests surrounding Western Cape agriculture, but this could change drastically come early December, which is the deadline for a new wage agreement. Threats have also surfaced that agricultural unrest, as happened with mining, could spread to the rest of the country.

As was the case at Marikana and the wider unrest that followed in its wake, it is clear that in the Western Cape agricultural sector there are many more issues at stake than just demands for increased wages. 

A holistic approach, covering as many as possible of the issues at stake, should be followed to arrive at a proper understanding of and long-term solutions to the underlying problems.

As with the mineworkers’ strikes, fact, fiction, lies, special interest propaganda and rumours became so intertwined in the Winelands war of words that a balanced picture is hard to find. Matters are further complicated by the grandstanding from a myriad of parties and role-players who became involved in the drama.

But some facts, issues and particularly tendencies can be distilled from what can be termed the Marikana and De Doorns events:

·         National, provincial and local governments and institutions such as labour unions and political parties were caught off guard, suggesting systemic and structure failures. Most worrying of these was the official intelligence community’s apparent failure to forewarn the government despite the fact that De Doorns was a crisis long in the making. It left the government without a strategy and forced it into ad hoc, and at times, almost panic reactions. It further led to uncoordinated responses, with Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant abroad while there was a crisis at home;

·         Both instances exposed existing governance structures and systems, as well as some industry practices, as fatally flawed and in urgent need of review. These include the unhealthy political involvement of trade unions, a flawed labour bargaining system that, among others, leaves part-time and seasonal/occasional workers out in the cold. Farm labour remains disorganised and susceptible to ex-legal action to deal with legitimate grievances; 

·         Farm workers and miners alike illustrated that they could organise themselves outside formal structures. It was left to a fractured and resource-poor NGO sector to take care of the farm workers. And, when the government, political parties and unions quickly arrived on the scene after turmoil erupted, workers clearly showed they do not trust them to look after their interests; and

·         There is a solidarity developing among those feeling economically and socially marginalised. Tellingly, farm workers used Marikana and mineworkers as a reference.

The ruling alliance, led by the African National Congress, remains torn apart by factions, ideological divisions, power struggles, policy tensions and other divisions:

·  In the latest examples, the ANC National Executive Committee found it necessary to take its trade union partner Cosatu to task in public;

·  Its Free State structures are challenged in court by some of its members; and

·  In Potchefstroom, a Democratic Alliance mayor was elected following a motion of no confidence in the ANC mayor, which was passed on the initiative of ANC councillors. 

For some time now, the party’s focus has mostly been on its elective and policy-making national conference next month, often to the exclusion of much else. It seems to have paralysed effective government and leadership.

At the same time, economic pressures on particularly the poor are increasing. High unemployment, dangerously wide inequalities and widespread poverty continue. The result is that widespread discontent is clearly gaining momentum.

Leonard Gentle, director of the International Labour Research and Information Group, notes in a recent article published by the South African Civil Society Information Service that “[s]ince Marikana, there has been a strike wave of some 100 000 workers across the country – from the platinum province, to the coal and gold mines of the North West, Gauteng and the Free State, and from the workers at Kumba in the Northern Cape to Toyota in KZN  and even home-based textile workers in Cape Town. And now farm workers in De Doorns.

“A common feature of these strikes has been that they were led and driven by self-organised workers committees in defiance of the existing unions and of signed collective agreements made with these unions.”

In both the so-called Platinum belt and the Western Cape farmlands, the labour unrest clearly did not primarily have a political focus, despite the finger pointing between the ANC and the DA-led Western Cape provincial government.

Even DA MP and former AgriSA chairperson Dr Lourie Bosman agreed that the strikes were not political in origin. He was quoted as saying, "I accept that the unrest may have been organic to begin with, but then, as tends to happen, the politicians piled in without regard for the long-term consequences for the country and people they claim to represent."

With her colleague Mildred Oliphant abroad, agriculture minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson got herself involved in what is essentially a labour dispute. Eventually, she agreed with a hastily put together coalition of organisations, calling themselves the Coalition of Farm Worker Representatives, including Cosatu, on a two-week suspension of the strike to allow the minister to 'persuade President Zuma' to increase the minimum daily wage to R150.

Many workers were unaware of this deal and a number of worker leaders complained afterward that the workers had no direct representation in the group who brokered the deal with the minister. Effectively, some organisations and their leaders hijacked the process and excluded the striking workers. 

This deal might have created some breathing space, but considering the legal framework that applies to procedures for minimum wage determinations, the agreed-upon deadline of 4 December is impossible to honour. Joemat-Pettersson, however, told workers that if there were not a new minimum wage in place by that date, they could go back on strike.

Billy Xabela, spokesperson for the Coalition of Farm Worker Representatives, said that if their demands were not met by 4 December, there would be an “intensification of protest actions, both in scope and in militancy”. His threat was echoed by individual farm workers and other union leaders.

The risks are extremely high that South Africa may be heading for a “Christmas of discontent”. 

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