5 June 2014

South Africa: No End in Sight to Strike Wave in South Africa

The wave of strikes in South Africa in recent years is affecting economic growth. Now the Metalworkers Union NUMSA is threatening to down tools. Experts warn that the situation is becoming critical.

Disgruntled workers taking to the streets, marching, singing and dancing as a way of drawing attention to labor disputes - this has become a frequent sight in South Africa. However, experts warn that the wave of strikes that has hit the country in recent years is threatening economic growth.

In 2013 South African mineworkers almost brought the entire industry to a standstill when they downed tools demanding better wages and living conditions. That was followed by a strike in the motor and auto industry that inflicted huge loses on car assembly plants and parts manufacturers throughout the country.

The first half of 2014 has been no different. On January 23, over 80,000 platinum sector mineworkers belonging to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) downed their tools demanding a monthly entry level salary of 12,500 Rand ($1,169 or 858 euros).

The platinum industry has been hard hit by strikes

That strike has yet to be resolved. To date it has cost the platinum mines an estimated 20 billion Rand in earnings, while striking miners have lost over 9 billion Rand in wages.

While AMCU leaders, mine owners and the government have all expressed hope that a resoloution is now not far off, experts say time is running out. They warn that the strike must end soon in order to minimize further negative impact on the country's economy. Gavin Capps, a senior researcher at Witwatersrand University, says it is time for mining companies to open their books and show their workers why they cannot afford their salary demands. "[They need to show] the real accurate company data, where you can actually do serious calculations of cost to company, what a company can bear and what it cannot bear. That seems to be held by one side in these negotiations and not being shared with the other," Capps told DW.

More strikes threatened

The sad fact is that South Africa's strike problems seem far from over. Several unions have threatened to call their members out after mid-term salary increase negotiations hit deadlock. On Thursday (05.06.2014) the Chamber of Mines went to court to prevent gold sector mineworkers from striking.

On the same day the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) warned that its 220,000 members in the engineering and metals sector will walk out at the end of June if they are not given a 15 percent salary increase. Numsa's Secretary General Irvin Jim said bargaining negotiations had "spectacularly failed to produce the desired outcome as expected by thousands of our members in the sector." He accused employers of imposing the strike on workers. "A strike has never been on our agenda purely because our core demands are affordable," Jim said.

In August 2012 the Marikana mine was the scene of violent clashes and deaths that shocked South Africa

A strong warning has come from the country's Reserve Bank. According to Kuben Naidoo, advisor to the bank's Monetary Committee, "We have got rising inflation in an environment of very low growth. The unemployment rate in the last term was 25.2% for the first quarter of this year and that's very high, in fact it is almost as high as it was during the crisis in 2008-2009."

Debate within the ANC

Independent political analyst Daniel Silke says one reason for the high frequency of strikes in South Africa is the political importance the broader trade union movement plays in the country's politics.

Daniel Silke says there is a complex relationship between the ANC and trade unions in South Africa

"The ruling African National Congress is effectively an alliance with the trade union movement in South Africa. So the ruling political party has sympathies for the workers, their rights and demands, and therefore allows - in a sense - a more than healthy dose of strikes to take place in S. Africa."

Against the background of this somewhat contradictory scenario, Silke says he is sure that there is "tremendous debate between those who continue to be sympathetic to the trade union movement and those who absolutely understand that South Africa's economy has been severely hurt by the disruption of work and in particular the breakdown of relations between workers and the business or private sector." Silke says it is this breakdown that is also having a psychological effect on investment and "the unwillingness of private enterprise and business in South Africa to expand and invest domestically for fear of further labour unrest in the future."

DW.DE

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