On Friday 13 this year, a 55-year-old-man died in Groote Schuur Hospital after being attacked at his place of work. This is hardly stirring news among the many violent tragedies that take place in South Africa every day.
But let’s remove the numbing context and look at the cold facts alone; an innocent man lost his life at the hands of others. In this case it was in the context of the battle for higher wages for workers.
This man was no martyr. He was not killed by those he felt were oppressing him, nor did he die in some valiant fight for what he believed in. No. Levison Wadie, a petrol attendant in Grassy Park, was brutally slain by the very people who stood for the same cause that he did.
He may well have held the same opinions as they did, suffered the same frustrations and stood for the same demands but he was killed because he chose a different way of voicing his concerns.
In another event on the same day as his murder, security camera footage from a petrol station on the East Rand clearly shows how a petrol attendant flees to call security guards when striking workers arrive on the premises.
The day also marked 13 months since striking miners killed fellow workers and police offices in Marikana, and the terrible massacres of August 16 that followed.
Striking and union action in South Africa left the realm of economics a long time ago. In a free market economic model, unions and collective action of labour play an important role in moderating the relationship between companies and their workers. Firms, as the employer, have more power than the individual worker by default and unions serve to bring workers into a collaborative group and give them sway at the negotiating table.
The purpose of union action is to improve the economic condition of workers, not to lead to their deaths.
National Union of Metalworkers of SA officials have condemned the actions of its members, as have all the other union leaders in cases of strike violence. But just as a union represents its workers, the members and their actions represent the union.
Strikes are a perfectly acceptable and often necessary form of protest. If the majority of workers feel that their pay is low enough to warrant a strike, then co-ordinating such an action and negotiating a fair wage would be enough on the part of the union and its members. One then has to question the legitimacy of the unions and their demands when intimidation and murder are necessary to make a strike effective.
Uncontrolled labour protests are crippling industry and the competitiveness of South Africa. A strike in the automotive component manufacturing sector should never have been allowed to follow a strike in the vehicle assembly industry.
Despite the latter having reached a settlement, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz have been forced to shut down plants due to the unavailability of components. Jobs are being lost and future growth is under serious threat.
Union action should be a warning to employers to the extent that if firms abuse the vulnerability of labour it will lead to hefty costs to their bottom line. But South African unions have taken this too far.
The biggest losers of such extreme and violent strikes are not the firms, but the workers themselves. They are paying for it with their jobs, with their incomes, and now some with their lives.
Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein