Right now labour is SA’s big story with the stark options: the Highway or the Dirt Road

 It’s two decades since I had a brief spell in Corporate South Africa. I’ll never regret those 30 months. Apart from providing seed

Gideon du Plessis: Providing an insider's perspective of the looking labour crisis - and options SA faces
Gideon du Plessis: Provides an insider’s perspective of the labour crisis, how we got here and the critical decisions SA must make to address it. 

capital to launch a successful media business, it also afforded lessons that cannot be learnt elsewhere. After leaving ABSA in mid-1996, my close friend Flip Meyer invited me to write a column for Sake, the business section of the Naspers newspaper group. He suggested it focused on what top executives are talking about and call it “Direksiepraatjies”. The paper’s labour writer Jan de Lange had the task of translating my copy into Afrikaans. Over the years I got to know and deeply respect Jan as both a professional and a human being. He is without peer in labour journalism, receiving long overdue recognition last month when named overall winner of the Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year. I’m not sure whether Jan swaps notes with them, but there are only two other people I know with the same understanding of the local labour scene. One is consultant Andrew Levy. The other is the author of the blog below. Gideon du Plessis is the General Secretary of trade union Solidarity. He provides a brilliant summation of an extraordinarily fragile situation. It’s required reading. Developments of the next few weeks are likely to push the nation one way or the other; onto Du Plessis’s Highway or the Dirt Road. The nation should be praying sanity prevails and it’s the former.- AH  

 By Gideon du Plessis*

During the late 1980’s South Africa was at a crossroads and futurist Clem Sunter proposed a high road and a low road scenario for South Africa after 1990. Whereas the low road would have ended in full-scale riots and civil war, the high road involved a negotiated political settlement.

In anticipation of what the so-called strike season will produce, the country’s labour relations system is at a crossroads with a “highway”, or “dirt road” scenario. Labour relations are again undergoing major transformation, comparable to the watershed recommendations of the Wiehahn Commission that led to the establishment of Cosatu in 1985, and the 1994 transformation that resulted in the current labour system. It is possible that the 2013 mining wage negotiations could be the final spark to ignite the powder keg that would result in full-scale rioting across the entire mining industry and which could spill over to other sectors of the economy. The sad irony is that the conflict in labour relations is not being caused by the traditional employer-trade union friction, but mainly by rivalry and tension between trade unions and within trade union federations.

This year will determine whether labour relations will be on the highway or the dirt road route in future.

The highway scenario

In order for the highway scenario to materialise and for labour relations in the country to stabilise more or less – bear in mind that labour relations have not been stable ever since the 1922 strike – there needs to be a return to “bread-and-butter” matters. Currently, trade union and employer negotiators are expected to resolve the country’s socio-economic and social problems, as well as service delivery and political problems around the wage negotiating table. Moreover, the complexity of labour relations in the mining industry and within Cosatu ranks is heightened because of trade union rivalry and discord, and is further fuelled by certain individual trade union leaders who are abusing their trade union platform to launch a political career.

Ridding labour relations of all external baggage will require more than the appointment of a presidential task team comprising the country’s deputy president and relevant cabinet ministers holding in-depth talks with trade union leaders in luxury hotels. Since the Marikana shootings on 16 August 2012 the leaders of interested parties have signed numerous peace accords and appointed task teams in a bid to bring about peace. The solution will not be found by leaders signing peace accords for the sake of their symbolic value, nor by ministers and politicians who publically choose sides or by trade union leaders who are threatening, among other things, to bring the economy to its knees. To get onto the highway, transformation also needs to take place at grassroots level. The common ground between employers and trade unions are the employees and the trade union members who, in the end, are the same people. A responsible trade union will pursue an employer-employee relationship based on mutual trust and the creation of a climate conducive to healthy labour relations. Despite some isolated instances, the times in which and the ideology by which ‘white capital and employers have always been the enemy intent on exploiting employees and trade union members so that trade union members could only be represented by their union’, belong to the past and the ideology has become obsolete.

To get onto the highway, trade union leaders must allow and encourage their members to conclude a workplace-specific accord with their own employer. The mining unrest highlighted the shortcoming constituted by a communication gap that exists between the employers and especially entry-level employees because communications about labour relations usually take place from the employer via trade union structures, in the hope that trade unions will convey the correct message. The time has come for employers to commit themselves too by agreement with their employees to fair labour practices; open communication; the prompt handling of grievances; refraining from unfair bias towards one trade union; freedom of association as far as trade union membership is concerned; and regular leave and protection for “migrant workers” during situations of labour unrest. Employees, on the other hand, must commit themselves to accept the employer’s disciplinary code, especially in relation to violence against and intimidation of fellow employees; participation in unprotected strikes;

and absence from the workplace. At a collective level, the employer on the one hand, and a trade union, its members and employees on the other, should be able to commit themselves to a productivity accord in terms of which the employer’s ideal for increased productivity and employees’ need for increased remuneration could correlate. There should be a move away from the current conflicting positional salary bargaining model towards an interest-based bargaining model in terms of which the core needs of both parties are accommodated.

The possibility of deploying a peacekeeping force, especially at hotspots in the mining industry, would also contribute to the restoration of the rule of law, and the elimination of the power of a small group of militants responsible for letting the majority of innocent employees and their families live in fear.

The highway will, however, pose a challenge to our Amcu colleagues who will, for the first time now, be challenged to negotiate wage increases on the big stage at the Chamber of Mines and at shop-floor level at the country’s three largest platinum mines. If the expectations of Amcu members could be managed down and they were to realise that, with or without a strike, they would not get a better increase than any other trade union in the mining industry and that they only belong to Amcu because of a new loyalty and commitment, the rivalry with other trade unions would also cease.

The success of the highway, however, depends on the leaders of rival unions having the courage of their conviction – be it of their own accord or as a result of the influence of the presidential task team – to bury the hatchet in the interest of the country, labour relations and that of their own members. The president of the country would now also have to lead his cabinet to ensure that the relevant government institutions concerned with economic growth, housing, infrastructure development, social services, education, transportation, healthcare and safety fulfil their constitutional duty, and to use tax money wisely and with integrity. Nothing about this scenario is impossible or too much asked of a country which has embarked on the “high road” since 1990.

The dirt road scenario

The National Democratic Revolution, which Professor André Duvenage describes as the ANC’s fundamental framework (paradigm of thought), refers to the importance of the ‘motive forces’ when referring to, among others, entry-level workers. The UDF used entry-level workers very effectively in marches to pressure the NP government, and following its establishment in 1985, Cosatu used the very same entry-level workers to bring the economy to its knees through strikes. Entry-level workers are the unsung heroes of the liberation struggle and Irvin Jim, Numsa general secretary indicated in 2011 during a speech at the Numsa congress that the black labour force in South Africa was the liberation force for black people. Post 1994, the same group has been used by certain trade union members on a “rent-a-crowd” basis to take to the streets to promote someone else’s agenda. In this regard, tension is mounting because these workers have now come to realise that as a result of all the strikes, they and their dependents have become impoverished because of the principle of no work, no pay, and they are realising that they are being abused. The signs of the disengagement between entry-level workers and their political and trade union leaders were clearly evident during the Marikana incident when dignitaries of the ruling party and the leadership of the largest trade union federation arrived in shiny cars and all dressed up in suits to address the striking workers at the now infamous Marikana Koppie.

With disengagement being in process, a battle for control of the “motive forces” has developed, with Amcu as the new opposition. Amcu, which is affiliated to Nactu, a Black Consciousness-oriented trade union federation, joined forces with the African People’s Convention, Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Socialist Movement and this grouping is beginning to gain control over the motive forces at the platinum mines. The contemporaneous establishment of the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) is systematically becoming a threat to the ruling tripartite alliance, because a grouping has developed to their left which could lure the alliance’s traditional support. This explains the intervention and involvement of senior members of the tripartite alliance and the negative statements levelled at the grouping to its left which has also destroyed their ideological ideal of “one industry, one union”. These statements are like a red flag being waved in front of Amcu.

Amcu, however, thrives on the dirt road and has grown during the past 18 months from around 30 000 members to 120 000, without having negotiated any improved conditions of employment or wage increases for members. The misleading remuneration package of 22% negotiated with Lonmin was closer to a 4% increase, but was manipulated by the media to sound more impressive. However, it has now created an expectation among Amcu members, which will certainly not be achieved by means of ordinary negotiation. The member recruitment recipe of violence and intimidation was, however, so successful that Amcu’s monthly membership income has risen by approximately R5 million per month since January 2012. All of a sudden, membership is now viewed in monetary terms too and Amcu office-bearers taste the benefits of their new positions which have to be protected at all cost. Should Amcu fail to negotiate in good faith at the Chamber of Mines, coupled with the current tension between mining trade unions in particular, the result will be a continuation of wildcat strikes; the discouragement of local and international investment; the closure of marginal mines and shafts with the concomitant retrenchment of staff (with or without political intervention); exports being limited; growth of the country’s trade account deficit; a weakening rand; and inflation rising well beyond the Reserve Bank’s targets. This continued workplace anarchy, which automatically spills over to the other industries, is the ideal breeding ground for populism in the run-up to the next national election.

The worst dirt road scenario is if the tension caused by labour relations unrest heightens to such an extent that it results in a split in the ranks of Cosatu, which could even cause a split to the left within the ANC.


The highway is the likely scenario, but as the pendulum swings back to normality, it still has to go through unstable phases, which means that labour unrest will not disappear overnight. However, on-going dialogue remain the key, as Winston Churchill remarked: ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’.

* Gideon du Plessis is the General Secretary: Labour Relations, Solidarity

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