THE DEEPER significance of the change in industrial relations in South Africa over the past two years cannot be ignored. We have reached the end of an era and labour needs a safe pair of hands if we are to avoid a train smash of unrecoverable proportions, and build a modern prosperous economy with increasing opportunities for all.

The subtext of current strike action in South Africa has little to do with actual salary increases and benefits. The platinum and metalworker strikes are finally over, but the ground has shifted and we are not in the same place we were two years ago. While trade unions are lauding their achievements, the actual settlement in the platinum sector does not reflect real financial progress for workers.

The CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) tabled a proposed settlement in February, rejected by all parties, which, in many categories, was marginally off the final settlement four months later.

In those long hungry months, workers lost an average of R50 000 each, a great deal of money for an entry-level Pondoland rock driller, about R10 billion in forfeited wages for an extra few rand per month each. Mines lost about R20bn in the process, eventually settling very close to the CCMA recommendation.

The R12 500 is nowhere in sight this year. After five months – our longest strike since 1922, workers appear to have been more victims than victors and the mines lost massively too. What was this strike really about and who were the real winners?

Actually there were few winners. The move of thousands of workers from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) gave the latter’s leadership a massive mandate on behalf of disgruntled workers. Scenes in the media of police mowing down striking workers gave Amcu a yet to be experienced moral authority and placed workers outside the tripartite alliance and baying for blood.

After Marikana, the five-month long strike was the almost inevitable result. It cost workers R10bn for the privilege of “fighting back”. But essentially the fight was against the tripartite alliance – the government-deployed police, the government-aligned NUM and some ANC-aligned shareholders in mines, as well as ineffectual ANC cabinet ministers.

Next South Africa faced another protracted strike in the engineering and metalworking sector as the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and other unions went out to fight for a similar “victory”. It is clear that the fight for workers’ wages have become the proxy war for giving the alliance a bloody nose.

Just below the surface the real battle simmers. Long-standing practitioners in the labour relations field are asserting: We are back in the 1980s in labour relations, which is why the institutions set up to resolve the process aren’t working. This is an interesting comment, given the fact that in the 1980s, many labour strikes were designed for political reasons to give the apartheid government a bloody nose and not merely to increase wages.

Long before the Numsa strike began, the rumours were already doing the rounds that the union was planning a strike of 220 000 workers as a show of strength prior to launching their own workers party.

If we are back in the 1980s mentality, then clearly this process is about forcing the new political overlords out. One can see it in the language of the leaders: Jeff Mphahlele, Amcu’s general secretary, said at the end of the platinum strike: “This victory is not just for Amcu, but for the whole South Africa (sic).”

Unions must “not be too political”, Mining Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi said.

CCMA head Nerine Kahn agrees: “The challenge is that there are many more broader political and social issues at play. This dispute, in my view, is significantly about those issues, as opposed to a wage dispute or fight between two unions.”

We have seen the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) largely out of the carcass of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), the rapid growth of Amcu, a relatively obscure union largely at the expense of NUM, the formation of the National Transport Movement – another Cosatu breakaway – and Numsa, along with nine other unions declaring their intention to form a workers party.

Recently another political break-away movement is forming in the remains of the ANCYL. The entire political Left is realigning and these labour strikes are merely proxy wars to give momentum to the shift.

What are workers, unions, Left-leaning youth and certain cash-flush entrepreneurs so upset about that they are causing this mini-revolution in the political environment? Clearly the ANC-SACP-Cosatu edifice has stopped delivering to the working class and the unemployed in a meaningful way, and the upwardly mobile see the (President Jacob) Zuma Enterprise as having created a glass ceiling.

Sociological theory indicates that it is not the poor and destitute who foment revolution in the world, but the newly upwardly mobile who find themselves hitting an impenetrable glass ceiling. Such a “revolution” in South Africa could have gone three ways – the Mubarak revolution, the ballot box change or, what is currently happening, the embryo of a workers party.

This process is fuelled in reality by signs that the Zuma Enterprise is self-enriching the “in-crowd”, the lack of local government service delivery such as water, electricity and sanitation at affordable prices, the ANC’s inability to deliver jobs, and the unaffordable land, housing, vehicles, air travel and quality education.

In this environment, it won’t be cabinet members with shareholdings in mines that will quiet the clammer, or those with visitation rights at Nkandla that will convince workers to go back to work, or tripartite-aligned union bosses caught with their fingers in the till, that will convince the unemployed not to stick their fingers in the till too. Contrary to what Ramatlhodi believes, it is not just “the entire labour relations regime that has to be revisited”.

If these movements want to achieve something lasting, they need to build a proper workers party. Into this basket will be folded the ambitions of those on the Left who wish to make an impact, so that the next bloody nose is not the economy and jobs, but the ANC at the 2016 polls.

Let’s be clear: the first shot that rang out at Marikana was the signal to the bling crowd that the party is over! No wonder the president has been feeling ill recently.


Ian Ollis is the DA’s shadow labour minister.