Three strikes and you’re out…

South Africa’s national sport isn’t rugby, nor cricket, nor soccer. It’s striking and it’s getting ridiculous. While workers need a legitimate form of protest against unreasonable treatment, in the South African context, the reasoning behind the most recent strikes is suspect.

Three problems with the strikes spring to mind. Firstly, as a country where approximately a third of the population is unemployed, striking workers are not exactly a boon to job creation, especially when the workers in question are employed in the privileged public sector and are demanding pay increases (8.6%) of roughly twice the inflation rate. This, on top of consistently high raises during the last few years and the fact that public sector salaries have formed an increasing percentage of the national budget, spells a recipe for trouble. COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) suggests that the strike was about prioritising the needs of the poor. That suggestion is ludicrous. It can be argued whether job creation is best achieved in the private or public sectors but when the government in question, led by the ruling ANC (African National Congress), has been voted in on a platform of policies geared towards poverty alleviation and job creation, one needs to ask if the money going towards the ridiculous raises could be put to better use.

COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) suggests that the strike was about prioritising the needs of the poor. That suggestion is ludicrous.

The second issue is one of competitiveness, South Africa likes to group itself with the quorum of developing nations known as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), our minister of foreign affair often refers to BRICSA (last two letters standing for South Africa), and hopes to attract foreign investment like the other BRIC members. However our labour is far too expensive to be considered on a par with China’s, for example, and our aggregate level of education (not helped by teachers’ strikes) doesn’t measure up either. How then do we propose to compete for international investment? On a more nuanced note, by acceding to COSATU’s demands the government sends out the message that South African are prepared to pay more but receive less. Considering the shoddy service and poor results that are the norm in South Africa’s public services (in general, I’m sure that there are outstanding individuals), government workers are receiving pay increases in real terms that don’t compensate for a better quality service. In the pay-for-performance culture of many international companies this would never be accepted.

The final issue is the government’s image: they certainly don’t come off as strong or sensible when they cave in to unreasonable demands. Government is being bullied by their partners like COSATU (bear in mind that COSATU represents less than 25% of the workforce) and yet the government gives in to demands that are financially infeasible, and which, by putting a strain on the national budget have a detrimental effect on the rest of the country. Government also failed to curb violence towards non-striking teacher or adequately to deal with illegal strikes by essential services. If the government would be taken seriously then it needs to take responsibility even if that means making some tough calls when necessary.

Essentially, given the current states of the South African and global economies, South Africa has come out of the strikes looking far weaker as government and less attractive as a place to do business. In the end this can only have a negative effect on the people and economy, despite what COSATU would have us believe.

  • jonathan

    I agree that striking is an ugly PA blight and an annoyance to anyone wanting services, but I disagree that it is wholey negative. I think the government understands what it takes to be competitive as a third world economy, and has instead chosen to maintain some degree of worker’s rights rather than have it citizens work at the near-slave level present in slums in China and India. We also have one of the poorest distributions of income in the world and very little money in the government purse. I think this sets up a difficult tension: yes, civil servants, teachers, doctors, etc. deserve more money. They are not being greedy, they are just asking for a little more fairness. The government, on the other hand, realises that by conceding increases they will be less able to deliver important services to their voters (and the rest of the country, maybe). It’s a difficult tension and I’m glad I don’t need to make the decision, but I think slamming the door on the face of people making very reasonable demands is not very nice.

    • mac

      I think you’ve identified a valid issue and worker’s rights are important certainly, India does in fact feel the same way (China, what a surprise, does not), I don’t object to the right to strike but I do object to the idea that strikes are a matter of course in the public sector, year in and year out. So while I agree that civil servants should probably earn more in the long run, I also disagree that the requests are reasonable given the current circumstances – the government doesn’t really have the money to pay huge raises without dropping public spending on other projects; whether the civil servants (again in general) actually deserve a raise of more than the inflation rate (on the back of some serious increases over the last few years) is a fairly contentious issue and paying public sector workers more would not seriously address the income inequality you spoke about considering the tiny proportion of the population that they make up.

  • Mathabo

    Hi Mac,

    Thank-you for the article. Great read and it raises some good points; however pointing fingers at the ANC, COSATU and striking “lambs” isn’t a difficult task. I think we can agree the strikes have a huge impact on the general well-being of the country and that by resolving the issue within the shortest time frame reduces short term losses incurred on many aspects. Like Jonathan says “It’s a difficult tension and I’m glad I don’t need to make the decision”.

    Newspapers and the DA have a full-time job of pointing out how the government can handle things better. How about looking into the long term? I would like to offer a challenge that you write a follow-up article on what long term steps have been taken, or should be taken (in your opinion), as possible resolution to this situation. Has government taken any steps to alleviate a re-occurrence of these strikes or is the light at the end of the tunnel another Metro train crash??

    Look forward to further articles.

    • That’s not a bad idea at all. I think Zuma’s stronger stance against strikers this time round was an important first step. Mobilising the SANDF to pick up the pieces where the strikers were content to not only allow people to perish in hospitals, but to actively obstruct their healthcare, was a great display of leadership, if somewhat rare from our president.

  • amy

    I don’t have a problem with striking for a reasonable cause (such as fairness). However, I do have a problem when these civil servants elect to take upon striking as their /primary/ cause. I recall hearing about an instance where a man with a chopped off hand was turned away by 3 hospitals because the doctors were on strike. In such a case, “striking for fairness” becomes an act that is against public policy. Doctors should be, first and foremost, the caretakers of our country. When they neglect that duty (or when they are pressured to turn away patients) then the water gets considerably murkier. Same with teachers. If your school closed down for the duration of the strike – fine. But don’t go around threatening private school teachers and students because they have decided to carry on teaching and learning.

    I don’t agree with the violence that accompanies the strikes, and I think that is an element that needs to be removed.