Lessons of South Africa’s Transnet strike

Posted on October 19, 2022


First published on Fin24 and in City Press on 16/10/2022

After being out of the country for two months, I have returned to find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that nothing much has changed: the trade union movement has not fragmented, crippled state owned enterprises stagger on, prominent corruption accused retain their ;positions and major political arguments continue to be repeated as if stuck in the groove of a vinyl record.

Prime among these arguments have been the reports that Cosatu is angry — again — with the ANC and may or may not support the governing party in the 2024 elections. Likewise, the SA Communist Party has murmured that it may or may not stand as an independent party against the ANC. In the meantime, in the background, conspiratorial talks continue among self-professed Left elements about the prospect of a “united front”. This is seen as comprising the SACP, “pan Africanist” and campaigning groups along with the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party headed by Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers.

What is, however, evident, is that everything, seemingly across the board, is continuing to fray at the edges, perhaps to a greater extent than before. It is not a question of the centre not being able to hold: that ceased being the case a long time ago; it is that the entire structure is slowly falling apart. Nothing new in that.

However, the Transnet strike should have triggered a major reassessment of the situation. It has not. Instead, we have the same, repetitious and superficial arguments, including a call for a “social compact” between unions, management and government, arguments which fail to recognise the real problems. And without such reckognition, there can be no hope of any lasting solution.

In the first place, social compacts are a chimera because workers and bosses have diametrically opposed interests: employers are compelled to increase profits, workers to improve wages and working conditions which are `a cost —a drain — on profits. But there are times when the two sides of the capitalist economy could — and should — make common cause.

And there is common cause to be made over the Transnet dispute, but not with government which is, effectively, the board of directors of this crucial logistics company. But it is a board that did nothing as mismanagement, incompetence and corruption proliferated, threatening massive damage to the economy.

This has been recognised by the combined business lobby with the offer this week to pay an additional “strike avoidance” levy to bridge the gap between the union pay demand and Transnet’s offer. However, this is a mere stop-gap measure, it will do nothing to treat the ongoing malaise. An additional proposal by the lobby, to have port work declared an essential service to prohibit future strikes will also infuriate the labour movement.

But this strike has also highlighted how the core — and too often ignored — principle of trade unionism, worker unity, has been undermined. This does not mean unity in one factory, farm, mine or retail entity: it means consideration of the pay and conditions of all workers in economies that are integrated on a national and global level.

The knock-on effects of the Transnet dispute could be massively damaging, especially to many more workers than those employed by Transnet. It is now the height of the berry season and South Africa is a major exporter of fresh produce, including berries, where speedy transport is the essence. Shipments of fresh produce are already being impacted, with the threat to tens of thousands of jobs, mainly in the agricultural sector.

Coal and iron ore exporters are also affected and this will mean the loss of foreign exchange earnings along with falls in profit followed by lesser tax revenue, all of which will have a negative impact across the board. Look at like this, it seems a case of the government sacrificing the lives and wellbeing of citizens on the altar of its arrogance and incompetence.

But the two unions involved in Transnet seem oblivious to the damage this dispute poses to other workers, many of whom — to the shame of the labour movement — are not unionised with many living in poverty. The largest of the two unions, the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union, has a particular responsibility here: as a member of ANC-aligned Cosatu, it was part of the cheerleading chorus in support of a government that oversaw rampant maladministration — and now pleads poverty

The unions clearly have a responsibility not only to their own members, but to workers throughout the complex supply chain. There are no quick fixes and an extra levy deal — with or without the poison pill of an essential service agreement — is no answer. What is needed is a long term plan to try to fix the mess in Transnet, something that is in the interests of both business, the unions and workers at large.

Whether it is possible is moot, but a temporary coalition of unions and business seems the only way the government, as the effective directors of Transnet, can be made to agree a reconstruction plan — preferably with a timetable attached — for this economically essential service. It is a matter of urgency.

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