Some food for thought in 2011

Posted on December 17, 2010


This is the last Inside Labour column for 2010. So I want to take this opportunity not only to wish all readers the best for the season and the coming year, but also to touch on some of the baggage — on a micro and macro level — being carried forward into 2011.

At a micro level — for many groups and individuals in the labour movement — Yuletide signals a welcome respite, much like the interval between rounds in a boxing match. A good example is the case of the small Commercial Stevedoring, Agriculture and Allied Workers Union that last week won a first round victory in the Cape Town labour court.

The union was granted an interim interdict ordering the owner of the Robertson abattoir to give back jobs to unionised workers who were locked out and then sacked. They were paid R300 a week and protested at having to work as many as 37 hours of unpaid overtime in a six-day period.

But round two starts on January 25 when the employer is expected to enter the labour court determined to score a knockout by having the interdict overturned. Even if the workers and their union win again, the fight could go on, except that the union, already facing R25 000 in costs, will be financially exhausted and may have to throw in the towel.

Much the same applies to two former trade union campaigners in the navy. Except that they have taken part in what one leading attorney has described as “a travesty” of a legal bout that has gone on for 12 years.

Donovan Leibrandt and Lentoane Rantai, were first accused in 1998 of complicity in a botched arson attack on a building at the Simonstown naval base.  The perpetrator, a former Mkhonto weSizwe fighter, Thomas Ramalahla, later died of burns, but Leibrandt and Rantai, who took him to hospital, were charged before a military court with arson on the basis of common purpose; that they had agreed with the attack.

After more than two years, the charges were dropped.  The case had prescribed and the two were acquitted.  Then, in 2002, the military handed the matter over to the civilian courts.

As lawyer Cecil Burgess, who appeared for Leibrandt and Rantai at the military court and who is now an ANC MP, has noted: “If you elect to try someone in one court and fail, you can’t simply change to another court.”

Burgess may be right, but that is precisely what happened — and Leibrandt and Rantai were sentenced to eight years imprisonment in what several lawyers have described as “a most problematic judgement”. They appealed and, eight years later, are still in a legal limbo, awaiting a decision should be made in the new year.

Others waiting for 2011 to finally know what the future holds for them are the miners at Grootvlei and Orkney. On December 17 the Johannesburg high court should rule on whether or not Aurora Empowerment Systems should be liquidated. But that should be only the first step to finality for the more than 5 000 miners who are owed an estimated R15 million in wages.

In the meantime, the department of labour plans to pay some of them some of the money owing. It will be drawn from R2.3 million deposited with the department by Aurora Empowerment.

“It’s not much. Certainly nowhere near what they are owned — and 1 600 of the miners will not receive anything,” says NUM media officer, Lesiba Seshoka. He is also scathing about reports that a Chinese company is prepared to take over the mines as a $100 million investment when “not long ago, they were valued at not more than R250 million”.

He agrees that many NUM members and other trade unionists are also becoming increasingly angry at what they see as the government inaction in the face of a human rights scandal. The “political connections” of the Aurora group are generally blamed.

Such perceptions will sour the atmosphere in which the government hopes to persuade the unions to sign on to the macro event to be fleshed out in 2011: the New Growth Path (NGP).

The NGP is supposed to signal the start of a new era of co-operation between unions, business and government. This would make analogies about boxing seem superfluous.

But it is still very much an open question whether the NGP will or will not provide some — or any — answers. The trade union movement is already split on its assessment, with even Cosatu unions holding opposing viewpoints.

For example, the SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union has hailed the NGP, while the National Union of Metalworkers sees the plan as merely another version of the Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) framework of 1996 that is condemned almost unanimously by the labour movement.

Who is right and who wrong will only become clearer with the benefit of hindsight; with the benefit of being able to judge how well — or badly — the NGP has fared over time: to what degree it has succeeded in terms of its proclaimed goals of greater economic growth, increased investment and job creation. After all, the only real test of the truth or accuracy of any assertion is the ability to predict outcome.

What does, however, seem likely is that government and business will hail as a sign of success any increase — however slight — in the overall economic growth statistics; the unions will give a thumbs down in the case of marginal or even non-existent job creation. And attempts to restrict workers’ pay rises in the face of the existing wage and welfare gap are almost certain to be resisted — even in the unlikely event of executive pay and perks being successfully capped.

So unless there is a genuine economic turn-round both locally and globally — along with evidence of job creation and serious moves to narrow the wealth gap the same battles are on the cards for 2011. Food for thought as we face the festive season.