It’s NOT whether South Africa needs a Margaret Thatcher. It’s simply when and in whom her spirit will be reincarnated.
The current wage negotiations have been exceptionally violent. It’s yet another sign that the union movement is too strong and also, paradoxically, that the power of organised labour is waning.
Last week strikers in the plastics sector reportedly necklaced a security guard. Three people have died in the Sibanye-Stillwater mining strike and the practice of assaulting non-striking “rats” has put dozens in hospital.
Moneyweb reports that three CEOs have been assaulted and one CEO died “as a result of attacks on his factory”. The homes of non-striking workers have been torched and 17 factories vandalised, petrol-bombed or looted.
The union leadership has been predictably guileful. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa says it is “not a violent trade union”. The cause of the deaths and mayhem, it says, is the “psychological violence” inflicted on workers by employers.
Unions have been able to get away with such nonsense for so long because of the pivotal role Cosatu has historically had in the tripartite alliance. That may be changing. Despite fierce union opposition, the government has legislated for strike ballots to be secret, a regulation that was dropped in 1995 in response to Cosatu lobbying.
There are a number of reasons why the union voice is being listened to with more scepticism. Firstly, with the decline of the mining and manufacturing sectors, it has seen a more than 25% drop in numbers. Outside the public sector, union membership has slipped from 26% two decades ago to less than 20% today.
Secondly, the movement is split, leaving Cosatu with less monolithic power in the workplace and a weaker role in the alliance. The downside is that such union rivalry may escalate radical behaviour, as each seeks to outdo the other for members.
So we have a steadily deteriorating economic situation, investor reluctance, and growing unemployment because the regulatory environment discourages hiring and labour-intensive industry. We also have growing conflict because the employed view low-wage competitors, such as technology, immigrants and the unemployed, as an existential threat. Existing levels of union militancy are a concern for the rating agencies. If the situation gets worse, the government will be forced to act more firmly.
While it’s difficult to imagine President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former leader of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, as a black Thatcher, something has to give. And Thatcher has shown exactly what it is – the excessive power of the unions.
There are very good reasons why Thatcher remains anathema to many. For the British populace be told to drink up a vile medicine because “Nanny knows best” was bad enough. Almost worse is to find that Nanny was right.
Nevertheless, her de-fanging a trade union movement that had become destructive transformed the UK’s political landscape and set the stage for an economic renaissance.
Ironically, it was the unions’ gauntlet thrown down before a Labour government in the ’78-79 “winter of discontent” that led directly to Thatcher’s victory the following year.
And it’s a tacit acknowledgement of the necessity of the union movement being reined in that no Labour government since has reversed the curbs she placed on union activity, such as secret ballots before striking, flying pickets and sympathy strikes.
We can continue with our refusal to face the fact that the unions – whose courageous challenge to apartheid was critical to the establishment of our democracy – are now destroying it. Or, no matter how odious we might find her, we can learn from Thatcher.
@TheJaundicedEye returns on January 5.
** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media.