Desperately seeking Maggie

William Saunderson-Meyer says in the face of union thuggery something has to give


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, even by SA standards. 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 allegedly necklaced a security guard and burnt him to death. Three people have died in the Sibanye-Stillwater mining strike and the practice of intimidating and assaulting non-striking “rats”, tacitly tolerated by the union leadership, 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, with property damage and lost production in excess of R100m.

The union leadership has been predictably guileful. The National Union of Metalworkers of SA 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 the Congress of SA Trade Unions has historically had in the tripartite alliance. The African National Congress government has had to be wary of alienating the worker movement that helped put it in office, so has trod gently for decades.

That may be slowly 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 a peak of 26% two decades ago to below 20% today.

Secondly, the movement is split, leaving Cosatu with less monolithic power in the workplace and consequently a weaker role in the alliance. The downside is that such union rivalry may escalate radical and confrontational behaviour, as each seeks to outdo the other in the scramble for members.

This is exactly what the National Employers Association (Neasa) fears. Neasa CEO Gerhard Papenfus says that the current violence “simply shows how trade unions, fighting for relevance, will behave in the future”.

So we have a steadily deteriorating economic situation, investor reluctance, 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 already 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 an anathema to many. Deeply divisive policies administered by a haughty and condescending matron can be a psychologically scarring experience.

For the British populace be told to drink up a vile medicine because it is “for your own good” and “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 recklessly destructive transformed the United Kingdom’s political landscape and set the stage for a remarkable 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.

The ANC government is, at some time, going to have to find a way to deal with the root causes of union violence. Lest we forget, the Marikana shooting by the police of 34 rampaging workers, some armed with clubs and machetes, was preceded by the strikers murdering10 people — six non-striking workers, two security guards, and two police officers. 

We can continue with our spineless refusal to face the fact that the unions — whose courageous challenge to the apartheid state was critical to the establishment of our democracy — are now destroying it. Alternatively, no matter how odious we might find her personally, we can learn from how Thatcher dealt with the problem.

@TheJaundicedEye returns on January 5, 2019