The number of man-days lost due to strikes has averaged 3.4 million a year for the nearly two decades of democracy. That is the average; the actual number has fluctuated wildly from less than 1 million to over 12 million in some years.
In five of the 19 years, less than 1 million man-days were lost, while in two of those years more than 12 million days were lost. The difference was the civil service – when 1 million or more workers go out on strike, the numbers run up quickly.
In 2011, 5.4 million man-days were lost. This too was largely due to municipal workers who went out on strike. There were about 280 000 municipal workers in 2011, so the numbers clocked up quickly.
Last year presented a different pattern. In total, 4.5 million man-days were lost in strikes. The distinguishing factors are:
* Most of these strikes occurred after the normal wage bargaining season, largely stretching from June to the end of September. By August last year, with most of the wage negotiations out of the way, it looked as if 2012 could be one of those years where the total man-days lost could come in less than 1 million. And then the mining and farmworkers’ strikes occurred and the numbers shot up for the year.
* Most of them were unprotected strikes, or strikes taking place outside of the rules of collective bargaining. Readers will remember how chaotic the strikes in the mining industry and in the Boland agricultural sector were. They were responsible for most of the year’s man-days lost.
The Treasury estimated last year that the strikes in the mining industry cost the country about 0.5 percentage points in gross domestic product growth. Thus, growth for the year could have been 3 percent, rather than the 2.5 percent achieved.
So far this year, 5.4 million man-days have been lost (as at the end of September). This is the same number as those lost in the whole of 2011, but this time most of the man-days lost have been in the private sector.
The impact on output would be bigger than the municipal workers’ impact in 2011. Expectations of growth for this year have been downgraded from 2.7 percent at the start of the year to 2.2 percent now.
At the time of writing, the big strikes have been settled. Those were the ones in the retail motor industry, the automotive industry, the construction industry and, of course, the gold mines.
The uncertainty is what the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) will do at the mines where it is representative, particularly platinum and coal mines.
Amcu has a well-earned reputation for anarchy and flouting all the rules of collective bargaining and industrial disputes. (Amcu was at some stage the darling of some members of the chattering classes, largely because it was anti-Cosatu, but that infatuation has probably fizzled out.) So expect some more man-days to be lost.
It is noticeable that the number of man-days lost through strike action has increased considerably since 2005 – exactly the time that South Africa started achieving 5 percent annual growth. The 5 percent growth lasted for four years and then came crashing down with the global financial crisis, but strike days have not decreased.
Is there a link between the considerable wealth created since the mid-2000s and the rise in strike activity? Could the much-vaunted theory of relative deprivation play a role in this increase? Is there a link with the fact that South Africa has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world?
Some commentators suggest exactly that. Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib, for example, is firmly of the opinion that inequality drives a lot of the tension in South Africa.
Most people would agree that inequality is a serious issue in this country. If there is a link between that and economic unrest, one can expect severe tensions in our body politic in future years. That is not new, South Africa has always had to cope with a lot of tension in its political economy. The question is whether those tensions can be managed with a reasonable degree of order and stability. Time will tell.
The ructions in Cosatu may very well have a bearing on how these tensions play out. There is clearly a serious fight going on between the supporters of suspended general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and his opponents, the latter largely suspected of being supporters of President Jacob Zuma.
If Vavi survives the attempts to purge him, Cosatu will be much weaker. On the other hand if Vavi does not survive, there is the possibility of splits in Cosatu – and of a split between some Cosatu unions and the ANC. Either way Cosatu would end up weaker. Who and what will fill that space?
It is unlikely that Vavi will just ride off into the sunset. It is more likely that he will make a comeback, perhaps even in the form of a new political party.
The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) is Vavi’s biggest supporter and one of Cosatu’s strongest unions. If he goes, what would it do? Numsa is also South Africa’s most left-wing political organisation. Would it break away from Cosatu and start competing with Cosatu unions to recruit members?
That is where the tensions in the workplace and around inequality may boil over and affect politics. At this stage it is all speculation. We can only wait and see how things unfold.
Is it just coincidence that Zuma has signed the e-toll legislation just as Vavi seems to have been neutralised? Looking back over the strike data for the years, it is noticeable that in March last year, 200 000 man-days were lost in a Cosatu strike against e-tolling. It was one of the biggest strikes of the year. Now 18 months later the president signs the bill. Vavi’s vociferous opposition to e-tolling is well known. Recently he has gone quiet as he fights for his political future. Not only conspiracy theorists will make a connection.
* The wage negotiating season is not over yet (platinum and coal mining talks still have to be concluded) and man-days lost are already way beyond last year as well as the average for the last two decade.
* First civil service workers and now private sector workers are demanding a bigger slice of the pie.
* Strike numbers started to rise beyond the two-decades average just as the economy started to grow at 5 percent a year.
* Some commentators link this trend in strike numbers to the high levels of inequality we have in the country.
* If true, then the underlying tensions will also play out in our body politic. In this regard the tensions in Cosatu may have an important bearing on future politics.
JP Landman is a political analyst at Nedbank Private Wealth.