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Violent strikes and how to change them

Gabi Falanga

From workers using force to challenge exploitation, to the role of unions in protests, experts have analysed strike violence at a Marikana seminar.

Violence is a way of challenging an order of inequality and exploitation, and a response to structural violence in the labour processes, according to Crispen Chinguno. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

"Violence works. It has worked in the past and it will work today." This is the rationale of workers during many strikes, according to Crispen Chinguno from the University of Witwatersrand's Society, Work and Development Institute

In his presentation on Wednesday titled "Explaining violence in strikes", Chinguno unpacked the basis of worker violence. He was speaking at the third seminar held by the Marikana commission of inquiry to explore the underlying causes that led to the Marikana tragedy in August 2012.

"Violence is one of the means in which the workers come together for a common cause," he told the audience.

Violence is also a way of challenging an order of inequality and exploitation, and a response to structural violence in the labour processes, he said. Part of the strike repertoire, according to Chinguno, is the realisation of power. It is often in response to the fragmentation of the work force, which undermines collective solidarity.

More significant, however, is the way in which strike violence in represented. "Mineworkers are framed as primitive, illiterate, they use sangomas, they demand R12 500, which is unreasonable and outrageous – they are financially illiterate."

The significance of this, according to Chinguno, is that it shapes the responses of stakeholders. "These representations of mineworkers are used to justify low wages … it closes the dialogue with the workers, justifies the use of violence and is designed to delegitimise demands of workers."

Role of unions
Chinguno also pointed out the role of unions, employers and the state in strike violence. 

"Strike violence is a means [for employers or the state] to assert, maintain, or restore control and order; or [strikers'] form of resistance to challenge or reject domination and control."

Professor Edward Webster, also from the Society, Work and Development Institute, elaborated on Chinguno's explanation for violence in strikes. 

"Industrial relations involves the strategic use of power, especially in strike situations," he said. "In low trust situations, management attempts to divide the workforce, while unions will attempt to establish collective solidarity amongst its members."

In his presentation, Webster explored the possibility of an "alternative avenue for non-violent resolution of conflict". 

"Workers need a sense of control within the strike," Webster said. He then proposed that two requirements be made mandatory for strike action.

"Union constitutions require a confidential ballot before a strike," he suggested. This, he said, would preempt strike action, provide an early warning to unions and would prompt negotiations. It would also ensure a democratic mandate for a strike, as there would not be a dispute about how the workers felt. 

Police's role at strikes
Webster's second proposition is for companies to more involved in the picketing process. This process would include companies being notified and briefed in detail, with preparation by the employer being a key factor. Webster says unions should act to minimise injury and damage to properties and entrances and exits should not be blocked.

To better illustrate his point, Webster provided a quote by an unknown director of human resources in a parastatal: "My experience is that it is best to conclude picketing agreements as close to the site of the protest action as possible. This forces an engagement with the union and the management of the site over where picketing will take place, what is appropriate picketing, and how the situation will be managed."

The final presentation was by Graham Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies. 

In his presentation, titled "How can SAPS [South African Police Service] prevent another Marikana", Newham pointed out key concerns around the 2012 massacre, which left dozens of mineworkers dead. This includes the belief by workers that the police were open to political and private pressure exerted on them.

Newham also highlighted that "the police did not appear to be primarily focussed on doing everything possible to minimise violence and loss of life on the day of the killings … The police should've done what they've always done: minimum use of force, negotiations and if you can't do this without the use of violence, retreat!"

Newham criticised the lack of investigation by the SAPS into the Marikana incident in order to identify criminality and misconduct on the police's part. "And there's a lack of any clear action plan to prevent such an incident reoccurring," he told the audience.

Preventing another Marikana
Newham's recommendations on what can be done to improve policing in South Africa and prevent another Marikana were mostly based on the National Development Plan (NDP), which was formally adopted by Cabinet in 2013. 

According to the NDP, professionalisation of the police should be established through a code of conduct, where periodic checks are done to ensure understanding of the code. Additionally, a code of professional and ethical police practice should be developed, with members regularly trained and tested on this, as well as undergoing general competency assessments. Competency and excellence, in turn, should be recognised and rewarded.

The establishment of a national policing board would be able to sets standards for recruitment, selection, appointment and promotion, according to the NDP. Specialised training should also be provided for detectives, community policing and other special units.

In his presentation, Newham pointed to the failure in police leadership since 2000 – under the reigns of former commissioners Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele, former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, and current national police commissioner Riah Phiyega – as one of the main reasons for the overall failure of the police.

In his recommendations, Newham again cited the NDP's solution. "The national commissioner and deputies should be appointed by the president on a competitive basis. A selection panel should select and interview candidates against objective criteria."

Also essential, according to Newham, was the immediate demilitarisation of the police. 

All of this, he said, "would ensure that SAPS becomes depoliticised and is able to withstand political pressure within its field of operation. Over time, the SAPS would see an increase in public trust and respect from communities to the benefit of all."

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