SA’s cosseted union thugs

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the protection rackets run by organised labour


South Africa has among the most cosseted workers in the world, in terms of job security. They’re also among the most violently militant.

It’s an unusual situation in a country where unemployment is the only steadily growing sector of an enfeebled economy. According to the most recent statistics (last quarter of 2020) about a third of South Africans actively seeking work are unable to find it. Add in those who want to work but are no longer seeking it — discouraged by their fruitless efforts or simply because they can’t afford the transport, clothing and other costs associated with applying for a job — and that rises to 43% of the labour force. That’s more than 11m desperate, job-hungry people.

Logic would seemingly dictate that under such circumstances, the relatively few able to obtain paid, regular remuneration would be hard working and eager to trim their sails to changing work patterns if necessary to preserve jobs. But because our labour laws make it exceedingly difficult to get rid of staff, in the private sector it has two contradictory results: it encourages companies to choose automation and outsourcing over employing additional hands while, at the same time, perversely strengthening the work-floor power of those already employed.

In the public sector, given the union alliance with the African National Congress government, economic logic is not a factor in any meaningful way. Despite demonstrably falling performance levels, state employment and remuneration have grown steadily since 1994.

Admittedly, public service entry requirements are demanding. Because of demographic quotas, it’s all about ticking the correct boxes for race, gender and disability that apply for that particular job at that particular moment. That’s like winning the trifecta on a horse race — doable but difficult.

And that’s just the first hurdle. Nepotism is rife, so applicants with uncles, aunties, daddies, mommies and blessers who are already in state employment have an edge. It’s also virtually impossible to get anything above an entry-level position, and subsequent promotions, if one is not a member of the ANC.

There is, however, still an element of initiative in the employment equation. Some government jobs, such as teaching, are up for sale to the union to the highest bidder.

Indeed, in education a ministerial task team found the SA Democratic Teachers Union — a valued subset of the ANC, the Congress of SA Trade Unions and the SA Communist Party — to have a “stranglehold” over six of the nine provinces, exercising “de facto control” over these education departments and selling posts. Since the competition is fierce, disputed job appointments are often being settled by one aspirant employee bumping of another.

In response to the report by the task team, headed by respected educationist Prof John Volmink, Education Minister Angie Motshekga promised that the “rot that has infiltrated education” would be brought under control. “This blatant exploitation and corruption will not be tolerated.”

The unions, said Motshekga, “appear to control government for selfish reasons which don't benefit learners or the country”. Their “dominant influence” was made possible by the “feeble and dilatory condition” of existing processes and these would be corrected immediately.

“There is no doubt that this has permitted unions to move into areas in which they have no business. Now, through the inexorable creeping of nepotism, these sectors of government are as subject to undue influence as every other sector,” she said.

That report was released in 2016. Five years later, not only have illegal union activities in education not been curbed but they have flourished and spread to other sectors. The union mafias demand to be cut into virtually every new construction, property development or industrial build. Without a cut going to the ringleaders, accompanied by the employment of their approved workers and suppliers, it’s a war zone with armed pickets, arson and head-bashing.

And it’s a virtually unpoliced war zone. Even when there is violence or public disorder, the police rarely intervene to protect property or make arrests, giving the craven explanation that these are matters for the civil courts.

There are astonishing levels of indulgence of worker militancy in South Africa. It’s taken almost three decades for a judicial authority to state the obvious — violence and intimidation are not acceptable.

For the first time, in a ruling this week, the Labour Appeal Court stated the bloody obvious: that striking employees armed with weapons — in this case, sticks, clubs, sjamboks, and PVC rods — can indeed be fired for intimidating other staff and the public. Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane said that any “reasonable employee” would know that bringing a dangerous weapon to work would not be tolerated.

Especially, said the judge, since there was, in this particular matter, a prominently displayed workplace sign “which prohibits such conduct during a picket or strike, and expressly warns that the consequence of the breach is the sanction of dismissal”. While it’s a welcome ruling by Kathree-Setiloane, she seems to be according an inordinate degree of importance to the company having signposted the limits of criminal behaviour.

It’s akin to it being necessary to have a sign at one’s garden gate: “No violence against your employers or their visitors will be tolerated, on pain of dismissal”. Nevertheless, the metalworkers union, Numsa, says confidently it will challenge the judgment all the way to the Constitutional Court.

In a more encouraging development, the City of Cape Town this week announced that it is moving ahead with a R1.4m civil claim against the Gatvol Capetonian action group and the Economic Freedom Fighters, for public infrastructure damaged during protests in 2019. In a separate matter, it is claiming R87,000 from the EFF for infrastructure repair costs during violent protests in Brackenfell last year.

There is a precedent for these claims. The Constitutional Court previously upheld a judgment that held the SA Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu) liable for R1.5m damages caused during a march in Cape Town.

But the problem with such claims against the unions is that it’s not easy to prove to a court that those perpetrating the violence are doing so with the tacit blessing of the protest organisers. It’s also a painfully slow and expensive process.

The Labour Appeal Court judgment this week relates to an incident during an engineering sector strike in July 2014. The ConCourt judgment against Satawu came in 2012 in response to an event six years earlier, during a period of volatile labour protests that saw 50 people killed before the march even took place.

These are criminal actions and should have been handled with police arrests and energetic prosecutions of the transgressing unionists. It’s not for the wronged parties to have to scrabble for justice — and long-delayed, expensive justice, at that.

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