The year 2012 was a watershed in terms of the collective bargaining processes and the Labour Relations Act.
Chris Jacobs, a conflict resolution expert at OIM International, a leading business consultancy in South Africa, described it aptly.
He said: “A climate tolerant of violence, bloodshed and ungovernable behaviour has been created by strikes in the mining, transport and, more recently, agriculture sectors.
“Tactics such as intimidation and violence have been widely used with little consequence to perpetrators. With minimal responsible behaviour demonstrated by leaders, opportunists are capitalising on the situation which will have devastating consequences for the South African economy.”
Jacobs warned that the continual violent nature of South Africa’s strike climate would leave many companies with no option but to start retrenching workers or mechanising operations in an effort to cut costs. This would reinforce the low employment rate, creating more economic hardship and perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.
About 1 700 workers refused to leave Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu mine and return to the surface on the morning of December 21. The mineworkers were part of the day shift and were being led by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), Harmony said. This followed the suspension of 578 fellow workers, including contractors.
Ten mineworkers were injured in a clash with security guards and police at the mine.
The affected employees and contractors had been suspended after taking part in an unprotected strike. Late in November, two workers were killed and a third injured during violence believed to be the result of rivalry between Amcu and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
In its end-of-year statement, Cosatu said 2012 had been a year of explosive strikes by truck drivers, Post Office casuals, mineworkers at Lonmin, Anglo Platinum and Gold Fields, and, finally, Western Cape farmworkers.
The labour federation continued: “We have for the past few years been talking of ticking time bombs as an inevitable product of a society riven by a crisis of unemployment, poverty, and inequality, outrageous levels of corruption, ruthless exploitation of workers by labour brokers and our two-tier levels of service in education, health care and transport.”
Marikana was an absolute shock to South Africa and a wake up call. Thirty six miners were shot dead and scores injured by the police on August 16 during a violent wildcat wage strike at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg. A few days before the incident, four mineworkers had been shot dead in union rivalry and two policemen hacked to death by the striking miners.
A commission of inquiry, chaired by a retired judge and appointed by President Jacob Zuma, is under way. It is expected to make its first report to Zuma this month. But already it has heard harrowing claims about what happened on that black day, such as police killing wounded workers.
Marikana was a setback to collective bargaining processes. Lonmin, in an effort to resolve the problem, decided to include Amcu, an unrecognised union at Marikana, in its talks with the NUM. It is believed that most of those involved in the violent strike were turncoats from the NUM.
Following the platinum mining strikes was the wage strike in the road freight industry, which also saw its fair share of violence.
The SA Transport and Allied Workers Union denied its members were involved in violence and intimidation in the strike by truckers, putting the blame for violence on criminals, while its parent federation, Cosatu, issued a muted rebuke.
The country’s farmworkers have long been thought to be the most vulnerable because they are not organised.
Thousands of farmworkers in the Western Cape embarked on an illegal strike in November demanding that their daily wage be increased to R150 per day, from the current minimum wage of R69.
There was violence here too, with vineyards being torched. The strike was suspended, with strikers giving the government until December 4 to sort out the issue with farmers. This was later extended to January 9.
Following the strike, the Department of Labour kicked off prematurely its public hearings to determine the minimum wage in the farming sector.
These came to an end in mid-December, and the department will now consolidate inputs and prepare a report for consideration by the Employment Conditions Commission.