Everyone condemns labour-related violence but no one can agree on how to deal with the matter.
In Pinetown, a security guard was stoned. In Kimberley, tyres burned in front of a factory entrance. In Wadeville on the East Rand, women were beaten. In Krugersdorp on the West Rand, workers were told they would face consequences “like Marikana” should they cross the picket line.
Before the second week of the national strike by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) was out, 100 people had been arrested on charges of assault, intimidation and public violence. In a few cases, police used rubber bullets to disperse crowds determined to violate new rules on dangerous weapons at public gatherings.
But employers and workers not affiliated with the union reported many other cases of serious violence or threats that were not acted on by the police. In Gauteng, in particular, administrative staff, security guards and others not directly involved in production at many factories and engineering works said they feared for their lives if they reported to work.
Some of the incidents could be linked to people who, if not Numsa members, were at least sympathetic to the union. They wore its regalia, chanted its slogans and policed the picket lines to ensure that the strike shut down operations.
Initially, Numsa dismissed the reports as propaganda and then said those accusing its members of brutality were trying to incite violence against its members.
Piggybacking on the strike
This week, the union said it had received reports of criminals who were piggybacking on its strike and, when arrested, claimed they were union members. The union was investigating the reports.
When Numsa distanced itself from the excesses carried out in its name the denunciations were more than a little diluted and followed the script that established unions have used for decades.
Union members were seen attacking the gates of a building in Edenvale, where strikers also threatened people. (Gallo)
Of course the union would not condone violence, it told the media – even as everyone from shop stewards to Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim were telling their members to guard against “sellouts” and to “encourage” participation.
“Numsa has never ever condoned or encouraged striking workers to participate in acts of violence or vandalism,” Numsa’s deputy general secretary, Karl Cloete, said on Thursday.
“We have issued consistent messages through our regional and local leadership to communicate the need for all Numsa members participating in strike action to do so with the necessary discipline and restraint.”
But Cloete admitted that it is hard to encourage both restraint and militant involvement in the strike at the same time, and that some Numsa members may perceive violence as necessary to any strike.
In fact, it appears to be more than just a perception among union members. Almost everyone involved in the strike – with the notable exception of the government – believes that violence persists because it works, and will continue to do so unless dramatic changes are made to – depending on who you ask – labour legislation, strike rules or the fundamental nature of South African society.
“If it were not for the violence and intimidation, these things would fail completely,” said Gerhard Papenfus, who heads the National Employers’ Association of South Africa, the smaller of two employer groups negotiating with Numsa.
“There is no popular support for these strikes. This is why the violence and intimidation take place.”
Unions also recognise that there are wider implications to casting its strikes, stoppages and other actions as confrontational.
“We have this mentality among Cosatu members [that] they don’t go to peaceful demonstrations,” the trade union federation’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, said.
“You tell them there is no permission, that they are going to be defying [the authorities], then they come.”
Not a new problem
Sakhela Buhlungu, now the dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town but a former trade unionist and an expert in the field, said that to decry violence during the Numsa strike, or the recent platinum strike, as a new problem is rather rich.
“In 1989, the Paper Printing [Wood and Allied Workers’] Union was trying to break furniture and there was violence; we saw people thrown out of moving trains for the first time,” he said.
“The 1987 railway strike saw massive violence, by the police and the state, but also worker against worker ... This is stuff that, as union people, we knew then, and we tolerated, and we turned a blind eye to. Some people would even encourage it, not directly, but union structures knew about this and nobody raised the alarm. It has been going on forever.”
What can be done? Papenfus believes mandatory, secret balloting before any strike could significantly reduce violence. Cloete thinks outlawing scab labour, and so removing provocation, could do the job.
President Jacob Zuma has played down the violence and said there are adequate ways to resolve labour issues. (GCIS)
Vavi despaired about the inability of trade union leaders even to discuss strike violence without being branded as soft and insufficiently pro-worker.
And Buhlungu said South Africa would first have to admit to itself that it is a fundamentally violent place before strike violence specifically can be addressed. “We need to say to ourselves: our strikes are violent. But is that an aberration? Is it out of character?” he asked.
“Look at domestic violence; it is out of control. Look at child rape; it is out of control. Look at violence by the police against the public; it is out of control. Violence is so pervasive that, in fact, it would be a surprise if a strike were not violent.”
Though the prescriptions differ, just about everyone agrees South Africa needs strong medicine. But not everyone.
“We do not believe there is cause for alarm regarding worker action at any point,” President Jacob Zuma said on Thursday, at the glitzy launch of an assembly plant for the Chinese FAW Group in the Coega industrial development zone in the Eastern Cape.
“All parties know how to go about resolving any disputes that arise using the country’s effective and efficient labour relations and dispute resolution mechanisms.”
FAW eventually plans to assemble both cars and trucks at the new plant. It has invested R600-million and may create up to 1 000 jobs in part because, the company said, South Africa offers economic and political stability plus “abundant labour resources”.
Zuma condemned the violence associated with the Numsa strike and said the manufacturing sector had to go back to full production as soon as possible – but he gave no indication that concern about violence would result in fundamental changes to policy or legislation.
“We have enough instruments in our labour relations machinery to resolve labour disputes,” he said.
Holding unions to account not a simple matter
In theory, at least, South African unions can now be held liable for damage done to property during strikes – but even if radically extended, that principle holds little promise to reduce the level of violence associated with industrial action.
In 2012, the Constitutional Court held that the City of Cape Town could recover damages from the South African Municipal Workers’ Union after a march during a legal strike. Employers celebrated the ruling and Business Unity South Africa went as far as declaring it a “leash” on unions.
In practice, though, it did not quite work out that way.
“If we settle the strike and we get back to work we can save our company and we won’t lose our houses and our cars,” said a Gauteng business owner who had his premises vandalised by people who identified themselves as members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa this week.
“Why on earth would we go to court and start fighting again, risk everything, to get maybe a little bit of money?” Even in Cape Town, which fiercely pursued the principle, collective accountability is not seen as the solution to violent strikes.
“It’s all about intelligence,” said JP Smith, who is responsible for safety and security in the Cape Town mayoral committee.
“It is about highlighting the individuals, prosecuting them, exposing them to the media. What we need is for actions to have consequences for individuals.”
Some suspect that unions would have the financial means to shrug off civil claims for damages, and change nothing in the way they operate; that has yet to be tested.
“Damage to property is the least of the problems,” said University of Cape Town humanities dean Sakhela Buhlungu.
“The real thing is the loss of lives. With damages, the beneficiaries will be the people who own property. The poor people caught in the crossfire because they are scabbing, how do you compensate those people? Do you say the unions must pay for lost lives? You can’t quantify that.”