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.