Strike – not as easy as it looks

The news media is full of toyi-toying fat people in red T-shirts blockading hospital gates interspersed with pictures of dead and dying babies.

Alternatively the coverage is of other fat people in red T-shirts clutching sticks and whips trundling around, with their fat bottoms swaying, looking for pupils (bravely trying to uplift themselves by continuing their studies during the public sector wide strike) to beat and otherwise disrupt.

There is a degree of truth in the story… I mean, turn on your television, they’re everywhere, with their megaphones and coffee flasks (and clearly a lot of biscuits and sandwiches), belligerent and unattractive as it is possible to be.

But I suspect that we should treat the picture and the solutions that seem obvious (and are being offered by every newspaper and television station in the country – with unusual unanimity) with more than a degree of caution.

It’s impossible to realistically analyse the strike here – and anyway that is work I have to try to sell to a paying client – but there are some questions I would urge us all to bear in mind.

I lay some of them out here as bullet points:

  • Government has offered 7% with a R700 housing allowance (an offer that amounts, according to the employer, to between 9.4 percent and 8.5 percent, depending on grade) and unions are demanding 8.6 percent wage increase across the board and housing allowance of R1 000. This seems closer than it is – the difference between the offer and counter offer, when aggregated across the public sector, makes a huge difference to the fiscus and to the actual take home value of the workers’ pay packages. Both parties have something to fight for.
  • Workers strike at great cost to themselves – generally, by-and-large and when all the exceptions are smoothed out. Try for a moment and to imagine risking your job and deliberately deciding to take on being portrayed as greedy, callous and on a kind of stolen holiday. This is especially true in the public sector, where the customers you are involved in servicing are your neighbours, their children and the sick of your community.
  • We have the highest levels of inequality (measured by something called the Gini coefficient) of any country that keeps realistic figures in the world – and if not ‘in the world’ then we are in the company of only one or two others. In a public sector wage conflict the employer is government (with politicians representing the owners and the senior bureaucrats the managers). The differential between the earnings of public sector workers and their employers – both of whom take their pay package from the public purse – is a factor many times higher than in most countries in the world. When you add to this the public perception (and the strikers are part of that public) that the politicians are engaged in a nasty, sharp-toothed feeding frenzy at the aching teat of the public purse, ransacking the long built up assets of the public sector and using every mechanism possible to extort money from the private sector, is their any wonder that public sector workers see their lot as unfair?
  • Cosatu and its various member unions and the worker leadership “on the ground”, so to speak, is getting the kind of press it deserves. The behaviour of too many striking workers is so unacceptable that the unions are inviting a Maggie Thatcher to emerge from these battered streets to crush them and reformulate the South African economy to be a growth machine that will benefit merchant bankers and the rich … and no-one else. And the public will cheer that politician on, because the unions have not bothered to see the middle-ground as worth fighting for.
  • This strike –  as a culmination of other things but also in and of itself – is the death knell for the ruling alliance. It imposes upon the vague conflict between Nationalists and “Tenderpreneurs” on the one hand, and trade unions and communists on the other, a clear organisational character and a clear set of objectives and costs over which the contenders deeply disagree. Government might find more money. The unions might shift an inch to meet government’s next offer but I suspect this is the moment that South African politics has been circling ever since Mbeki slapped the unions and “the left” into a subservient position over ten years ago. I am not awaiting a formal announcement by Vavi that he is leading his cohorts into the wilderness. But I expect that in practice the unions and the communists will be out of government within the next few years (Perhaps even more than they were “out of government” under Mbeki … and I use “the next few years” to give myself a margin).

This week is going to be full of the strike and its consequences. It is, ultimately, not a hugely profound point,  but now, more than ever, we need to urge caution in seeing the world as a simple representation between good guys and bad. This impulse, to see things as if they were simple and easy to understand, is increasingly the direction of public discourse on radio, newspaper and television. We need a kind of private media tribunal in our heads.

3 thoughts on “Strike – not as easy as it looks

  1. Borain provides excellent insight into a problem that has no solution. The soccer was a nice high – unfortunately, like any drug, the effects are short lived.

    The socalled South African wealthy (the tax base) are too few in number to provid…e the cash (pay taxes) required to maintain the current infrastructure (hospitals/roads/schools). While the poor (uneducated, unskilled) who are unable to clothe/feed themselves, never mind pay taxes, continue to grow in number (high birth rate). These new citizens find themselves in a country with possibly the highest levels of inequality in the world (very rich & millions poverty stricken), a corrupt African style political elite, and “absolutley” no way to escape the poverty.

    Their only power is the vote… govt needs this vote so…to pacify the electorate, govt. will (like Venzuela/Zimbawe take your pick) compound the problem by instituting more regulations (higher taxes) that reduces the number of socalled wealthy (money likes to sleep where it is safe & can grow – like my kids here in Canada). Hey, cash knows no borders and constantly seeks security and high returns… like in India and China.. but definately not in Africa.

    Cash will seek new horizons and the poor will continue to breed as fast as they can – This will inturn proportionately shrink the tax base; and the downward spiral (economic decay) will continue to accelerate.

  2. The public servants strike is largely an annual event driven by the union leadership, not the workers. And Cosatu (indistinguishable from the SACP in my view) is heavily involved, ready to call out other unions in “sympathy” with government workers. Significantly the demonstrating workers are generally to be found wearing red Cosatu T shirts. (At least they were on this weeks Sky TV news!)

    Government puts itself in an indefensible position by feeding greedily at the public trough, providing a useful rallying point for the leadership of the unions. (Some of whom seem to have access to similar troughs provided by their union membership).

    The only solution would be for the tri-partate alliance to fold. In theory this would make a clear distinction between government and workers and threaten the ANC’s overall majority, forcing it’s members to curb their greed and sense of entitlement.

    In practice the SACP/Cosatu part of the alliance has historically commanded only around 6% of the national vote so it will not be in their interest to quit the alliance. And a reduction from 65% to 59% wouldn’t cause the ANC many sleepless nights.

    So we are stuck with the present annual strike, probably for quite a while into the future until the overall cost of government employees becomes unsustainable by the present limited tax base.

    Of course a 6 – 7% annual GDP might improve the tax base. Unfortunately Cosatu and its members are the tail wagging the dog in terms of the disincentives they provide to small business startups.

    So the only hope is to wish for a Maggie Thatcher “union breaker”. Fat chance of that happening!

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