Bumpy road ahead! Lesiba Seshoka explains why South Africa’s outlook might be bleaker than we think, and how politics is playing out in all spheres of the economy.
be it in politics, economics or in education, South Africa’s future looks bleaker than many pundits actually anticipate. As the adage goes: “Study the past if you will divine the future.”
From the politics of labour unions…
On the labour front, the first 20 years of our young democracy have been characterised by animosity between employers on the one hand and trade unions on the other. The animosity that reached its climax at Marikana in 2012 – where over 60 people lost their lives over a number of weeks – appears to have been a harbinger of worse to come. Not only did people die in Marikana; a jobs bloodbath followed, and former mining giants, Anglo American Platinum, Impala and Lonmin have become shells of their former selves.
At the heart of the conflict were two trade unions: the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). While many employers had hoped that Amcu’s consolidation of membership over NUM, a member of Cosatu, would bring some relief to the industry as it would disentangle economics from politics, employers are worse off than they were before and have been facing ridiculous wage demands and lengthy, destructive strike action, such as the recordlong strike of nearly five months in the platinum sector in 2014.
Due to Cosatu’s alliance with the ANC, many pundits argued that this relationship influences the ruling party to implement inflexible labour legislation to protect workers. But this relationship also benefitted the private sector in that the ruling party itself could intervene when there was destructive strike action and dissuade its comrades in the trade unions from continuing with such action – something the ANC and its government ministers couldn’t do in the 2014 Amcu-led strike, for example.
So while the alliance between Cosatu and the ANC was seen as mainly an “error” in the political economy, it also brought with it some stability. With Cosatu under threat, so is this “stability”.
Two examples of what is to come as Cosatu unions fight for survival are the recent strike by the Pikitup workers, led by the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) in Johannesburg, and the devastating strike by the Communication Workers Union (CWU) at the Post Office last year.
Almost every Cosatu union is fighting for survival and all of them are faced with splinter groups. To attract members, each would want to position itself as a “fighting” union to retain membership and recruit new members. With so many trade unions emerging in this high-unemployment environment, the competition for members gets even more intense.
The emergence of new trade unions is not a panacea of the problems workers face, nor would it help employers as workers would generally be divided. Amcu’s formation did not bring with it a solution to the problems faced by mineworkers or a solution for the employers, but an end to the life of powerful mining giants. Due to the devastating strike last year at the Post Office, the state-owned entity needs a massive government bailout in order to survive.
…to the call for reformation at tertiary institutions
Politics and education are facing the same challenges, with the toxic effects of the alliance between mainstream politics and youth formations in education illustrated by the #FeesMustFall and #omf (Outsourcing must fall) movements, bringing us the to the end of the university as we know it.
First, the #FeesMustFall campaign demanded free education, finally resulting in a government order late last year that universities are not allowed to increase their fees in 2016. Students then proceeded to fight for the end of outsourcing of workers on campuses. The result of both campaigns has been severe budgetary constraints for universities across the country, leading to staff retrenchments and cutbacks in financial support to students.
But this is just the beginning, and the battle is not different from the one fought by trade unions – it is also political. The ANC-aligned South African Student Congress (Sasco) is facing off with the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (Daso) and the EFF Student Command (EFFSC). Where elephants fight, the grass shall not grow.
The first 20 years of our young democracy have been characterised by animosity between employers on the one hand and trade unions on the other.
Now is the time to buckle up
On the political front, it is not only the ruling party, with its errant behaviour and the problems of the captured state. It is also the emerging political parties such as the EFF whose land-grab and war-talk rhetoric are disconcerting.
As the new trade unions (and student movements and political parties) fight the old ones for space, the economy shall suffer. At the end of it all, there shall be no mines, no universities and no country. You have been warned: fasten your seatbelts; we are in for a bumpy ride!
A Wits University student carries a poster written “Free Our Education” during a protest against academic exclusion on 4 April in Johannesburg.