A "war room" against strikes is the one that Cyril Ramaphosa really needs
Forty years ago British Prime Minister James Callaghan's Labour government was destroyed by militant trade unions in the so-called "winter of discontent" that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. Five years before that, militant unions had destroyed Edward Heath's Conservative government when he fought an election on the issue of "Who governs Britain: the miners or the government?"
The policy of appeasement towards the union movement dated back to Winston Churchill's post-war government in the early 1950s. Harold Wilson's Labour government tried to limit union power in 1969, but Callaghan, who had a union background, led a cabinet revolt against him – only to be hoist with his own petard a decade later.
So when Thatcher came to power she was faced with the challenge of reversing a well-established bipartisan appeasement policy that not one of her predecessors had been able to bring to an end. It took her a decade to finally break the overweening power of the trade union movement. She went through four labour ministers in a process which included removing union privileges such as closed shops and legal immunities, while also curtailing their picketing powers and imposing secret ballots before strikes could be called.
Her first confrontation with the unions, in 1981, ended in her defeat. She immediately began planning for the next strike. This was the great battle with Arthur Scargill in the coal mine strike which lasted a few days short of a year in 1984 to 1985. Critical to some of the earlier Scargill victories over governments had been the use of "flying pickets" to enforce strikes upon miners who did not support them.
Scargill had called the 1984 strike without a ballot as he knew it would not enjoy democratic support. The pickets were his private army. His objective was less to keep the uneconomic coal mines going than to bring down the government.
Thanks to excellent information provided by the intelligence services, Thatcher knew where pickets were likely to be deployed. When pickets were mounted in one area she sent in police from a different one. In one of the greatest battles of the strike, 4 200 policemen in riot gear confronted 5 000 pickets. Thatcher was implacable in her determination that "violence must not be seen to pay". She relied heavily on the enforcement of the common law.
Acting much of the time behind the scenes, Thatcher controlled every aspect of the government's response to the strike. She practised divide and rule. She bought off some unions with pay rises to ensure they did not support the strike. She threatened members of various others with instant dismissal if they joined the strike. When Scargill claimed that power stations would soon have to shut down because their coal supplies would run out, journalists were flown by helicopter to see the stockpiles of coal she had been building up since the 1981 confrontation. Had it been necessary to use the army to protect coal deliveries (in the end it was not) she was ready to do so.
In the Falklands War in 1982, Thatcher had agreed upon the terms of engagement with her service chiefs and then left them to get on with the job. But she herself was the commanding general of the battle against Scargill. His defeat paved the way for the leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, to begin purging it of its hard left elements and so usher in "New Labour" and Tony Blair's subsequent endorsement of Thatcherism.
How is all this relevant for South Africa? It warns us that handling a major public sector strike is beyond the capacities of the government run by the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC has in the past spoken glibly about setting up "war rooms" against poverty or to implement its national health insurance plan. The "war room" it needs is one to draw up plans to handle strikes against whatever serious efforts it might make to curtail the runaway costs of the public sector.
Other airlines can reduce the impact on customers of the current strike at South African Airways (SAA). A strike at the Eskom monopoly would be far more challenging. Handling it would require spot-on intelligence. The government would need to know which unions it could rely upon to keep Eskom going. It would need to ensure that there were adequate stockpiles of coal or whatever was necessary to keep power stations and other facilities, including hospitals and railways, in operation.
It would need to be confident of the loyalty and capabilities of however many police and soldiers it needed to deploy to ensure that public services continued to function. It would need to ensure that the police and the army did not join a general strike and were able to enforce the law, with the backing of the courts. It would need to enlist the support of private security companies. It would need also to remove the pro-union bias of labour law.
Yet the intelligence services, the police, the armed forces, SAA, and other parts of the public sector have been laid waste by corruption, cowardice, cadre deployment, and affirmative action. The ANC's own greed has destroyed any moral position it might otherwise have had in confronting unions called upon to comply with retrenchments or other attempts to cut back public spending.
If part of President Ramaphosa's much-vaunted "game plan" includes one to deal with a major public sector strike, he would be unwise to reveal it. But his two years in office have yet to show that he has the necessary qualities of courage and generalship.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.