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After 33 years of stability, the labour landscape shudders

The tragic shootings at Lonmin’s Marikana mine is a wake-up call to South Africans who imagined that the hard yards had ended with the advent of democracy. It is also a seismic shock to a labour-relations system that has weathered more than three decades.

At the very least, the shooting to death of 34 miners will change the way the SA Police Service is trained and deployed in public-unrest situations.

The disaster is manna from heaven to populists like expelled ANCYL firebrand Julius Malema. He could not have dreamed of a handier and heftier stick with which to beat President Jacob Zuma and with which to try to leverage Zuma’s ousting.

It is a bonanza, too, for Malema’s nationalisation campaign, given the inept management of Lonmin, a corporation unable even to outline a defence against accusations of exploitation. For days the world media published, unchallenged by Lonmin, striker claims that they earned R4 000 a month, while in fact the minimum underground wage is two-and-a-half times that amount.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, whose strongest constituent, the National Union of Mineworkers, was at the core of the dispute, will also be greatly affected. A judicial commission will ultimately dissect and weigh the contributory causes of the violence, but it’s obvious that rivalry between NUM and the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, was a major factor.

While Amcu appears to have driven this particular conflict, coercion is certainly not unknown to Cosatu. It has often turned a blind eye to so-called “rogue elements” within the ranks, who have rampaged, wounded and on occasion killed “scab” workers. On all sides, selective violence has long been a strategy.

Given the transformation of SA over the past couple of decades, it easy to forget that the basic shape of the country’s labour dispensation has remained essentially unchanged for 33 years. It was in 1979 that the National Party government accepted the Wiehahn Commission recommendations that legalised black trade unions.

It was an attempt to dampen industrial unrest, as black workers flouted the law to use their industrial muscle. Wiehahn argued that incorporating black workers into a formal bargaining system would give them a stake in shaping the outcomes of the capitalist system rather than trying to topple it.

The Nats also believed that if allowed to unionise, blacks would focus on achieving economic freedoms, rather than political ones. That was a predictably forlorn hope and black trade union power gave impetus to the political tsunami that culminated in the Nat volte-face of unbanning the ANC.

However, unlike the Nats, Wiehahn was right. The industrial-relations landscape of which he shaped the contours has proved remarkably resilient at containing the sometimes explosive pressures that bubble in SA society.

Until now. As the Marikana tragedy shows, suddenly there are challengers who scrabble for membership – with all the influence and rewards that employer recognition brings to union officials – on the basis that Cosatu is not only a crony of capital, but is also a pillar of the tripartite alliance that has failed the poor.

In this emotionally charged Amcu-NUM battle it doesn’t matter much to those at the bottom of the pile that Cosatu generally has been demonstrably successful in benefiting its members. Nor that the ANC alliance, for all its faults, has measurably improved life for most South Africans.

After almost two decades in power, the tripartite alliance – at least in the minds of many of the excluded and disaffected – has morphed into an arrogant bully, corrupt and unable to deliver. This is dangerous, explosive stuff, not only for Cosatu and the ANC, but also for SA.

The crisis demands vision and leadership, with solutions that eschew mindless populism. If Zuma cannot deliver, Marikana might become his personal Golgotha.