Following almost three weeks of silence, President Jacob Zuma finally addressed the country’s labour unrest issue yesterday, urging labourers, companies and unions to act with the nation’s best interests in mind and cautioning them not to “wreck the economy” while seeking the fulfilment of their demands.
“We should demand better salaries and working conditions, but we may not wreck the economy,” Zuma stated in response to a debate held in the National House of Traditional Leaders.
It has taken the government almost three weeks to give the situation any form of direct attention. The president’s statement is neither the first nor, in the opinion of many, the more compelling of the two made. His follows that of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan who called on the government and companies to display “spectacular leadership” the day before.
South Africa’s economy is dwindling. According to the Business Report, yesterday the rand fell to the lowest it has been in eleven years; a result of deterred investors and lack of production. Zuma warned that the continuation of strikes in the mining sector would corrode the country’s reputation and further spook investors. This would subsequently drive the country into poverty.
“The tension in the industry will not help the economy,” he said, “We could impoverish our country. That’s why the leaders ought to engage workers, so that workers understand exactly what the consequences of their actions are”.
In his address, Zuma had also directed a warning to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) which has overtaken the ANC-related National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Amcu’s largely unanticipated increase in members has sideswiped the NUM, thus diminishing the stature of the ANC as well.
Zuma agreed workers have the right to strike but questioned whether workers understand their motives and whether these are their own or those of their respective unions. “The question is: how do we do it (strike)? Do we do it to make others lose their jobs, or do we do it so that others can get more jobs?” he enquired.
Zweli Mkhize, the ANC’s secretary general, encouraged companies to stand their ground yesterday in Pretoria and urged them not to give in to actions of intended sabotage that would limit economic growth.
“The mining companies must not be allowed to give in to scare tactics and make settlements on [the] basis of intimidation and settle on unprincipled and unreasonable demands for fear of vigilante tactics,” he motivated.
“There is a difference between militancy and anarchy that we see growing in the newly-formed mining unions,” Mkhize insinuated, “Inevitably, the anarchy will result in many jobs being lost and the economy declining”.
Yesterday, Amcu had rejected an offer from Lonmin, the third-largest producer of platinum. Amcu has demanded the NUM offices to be closed as the party is now a small minority and has the support of less than 30% of Lonmin’s workers.
Analysts have come to recognise the situation as a political battle. According to the Chamber of Mines chief executive, Bheki Sibiya, Amcu has welcomed its newly-discovered political power, and the NUM has reverted to political allies to help its uncomfortable situation.
Sadly, stated Sibiya, “…at the end of the day, the people who will fall victim will be the employees”.