/ 6 August 2008

Mass Cosatu strike grips South Africa

Masses of workers supported a national strike against rising living costs on Wednesday, paralysing transport services and immobilising businesses.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions’s (Cosatu) countrywide strike against rocketing electricity prices affected a range of services and businesses, including buses, trains, taxis, schools, mining companies, shops and factories.

“It is looking excellent,” said Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven. “Johannesburg looks like a Sunday.”

Tens of thousands of protesters had gathered for marches in Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town, Ladysmith, Klerksdorp, Polokwane and Witbank. Police had been deployed in all these areas to keep the peace.

Gold mining operations were affected substantially, with AngloGold Ashanti saying no shafts were operating while Harmony and Gold Fields said its operations were limited.

The strike has damaged South Africa’s image, Efficient Group economist Dawie Roodt said. “You can’t put a rand value on what it has done to our image. I believe the strike is the second story on the BBC today.”

He said that the strike hit both the mines and the vehicle industry. “There’s a difference between a strike in manufacturing and a strike in services — with manufacturing, the impact will always be more severe,” he said.

The strike’s consequences will probably be more severe than he anticipated, Roodt said. However, he pointed out that South Africa has become used to strikes and that the mines know how to handle labour actions. “They have emergency plans.”

He said the only good thing that could be said for the one-day stoppage is that it provided an “emotional release”, adding: “People are suffering with the high food, fuel and electricity prices — being able to strike allows them to release their frustrations.”

However, Russell Lamberti, economic strategist at the Econometrix consultancy, said the one-day strike was unlikely to have a significant effect on the economy

“Producers will gain back what is lost today. When production levels return to normal, they will work extra hard to make it up for the rest of the month. Only after a one-week or two-week strike, you will see a significant impact.”

Lamberti said the strike showed a misunderstanding of economic issues within the unions. “The unions are striking against something they can’t control. Food and fuel prices are determined by global markets and not by policy. It’s not a conspiracy against the poor.”

He added: “The only appropriate national policy in the long term is to encourage and incentivise people to produce more food and boost the agricultural economy. The global demand for food is growing, especially with the industrialisation of China and India, so make sure that you produce more food and be able to export it.”

According to Lamberti, there is no really effective short-term national-level solution to higher food prices. “If you put a price cap on bread for example, you mess with the supply chain. You will eventually face shortages of basic goods and commodities, as were seen in communist countries.”

“Now that the global economy is becoming so interconnected, countries are learning that they don’t have as much policy autonomy as they thought. As a country you can choose to isolate yourself to create more policy autonomy, but then you miss out on the benefits and opportunities of free trade and rapidly growing foreign markets, as well as the benefits of strong global economic growth.”

He said there is no easy way to deal with inflation. The government’s interest-rate policy has been appropriate, given the severe inflation pressures — albeit somewhat painful.

“If you don’t respond with higher interest rates, you face potential runaway inflation that hurts the poor even more in the long run.”

He said the average Cosatu member “doesn’t really care that much about global economic dynamics”.

“Many Cosatu members feel marginalised and believe that government should provide the solutions to their grievances. This, possibly, has something to do with an apartheid mindset where it was the state that played such a dominant role in denying many their economic opportunities.”

Strike may hinder coal production
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Mines warned that the strike would hinder coal production and ultimately affect electricity supply by Eskom.

Deputy communications adviser Jabu Maphalala said the protest against the rise in electricity prices was counter-productive.

“A strike will impact on mining production, including coal production,” he said. “Earlier in the year, when there was an electricity crisis, part of the problem Eskom had was the depletion of coal stockpiles, which formed part of the discussions between labour, Eskom, the government and the mining industry.

“But the strike today [Wednesday] by the people will affect the production of coal-mining companies, which ultimately has an impact on Eskom’s success in generating electricity,” said Maphalala.

De Beers says effect ‘minimal’
Diamond miner De Beers said that the impact of the strike on its diamond production was “minimal”. According to spokesperson Tom Tweedy, “Diamond production on the five mines De Beers operates in South Africa continued with there being minimal impact from today’s stayaway.”

The protest was a protected industrial action in terms of section 77 of the Labour Relations Act and was therefore respected by De Beers, he added.

Participation in the industrial action varied from mine to mine, department to department and shift to shift in the various mines.

Based on an average across the mines, 25% of employees in the bargaining unit (being 2 612 employees of the 4 198 De Beers Consolidated Mines employees in South Africa) did not attend work on Wednesday.

“As one might expect to be the practice of the company and the union, the rights of employees have been upheld and we are pleased to say we have not received any report of intimidation on any of our mines,” Tweedy added.

De Beers operates mines in the Northern Cape, Free State and Limpopo province. The five mines are Namaqualand, Kimberley, Finsch, Voorspoed and Venetia Mine.

Ministers ‘should resign’
Cabinet ministers who did nothing to prevent the current electricity crisis should be forced to resign if workers lost their jobs as a result, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said in Cape Town.

Addressing more than 3 000 demonstrators who had marched to Parliament in protest against the power crisis and the rising cost of living, Vavi said it was unfair to expect workers to pay for mistakes committed by others.

“Should a single worker lose a job, the ministers will have to go. They are making us pay for mistakes committed by other fellows,” he said.

The fact that the government had allowed Eskom to hike electricity prices by 27% demonstrated that it did not have the interest of the poor at heart, Vavi said.

Workers have much to celebrate over the fact that a majority of serving Cabinet ministers will not be coming back after the expiry of their term next year. “The government ministers have proven their inefficiency beyond reasonable doubt.”

The crowd gathered at Keizergracht Street from early morning, before embarking on a 600m march to Parliament. Singing liberation struggle songs and chanting anti-government slogans, the marchers responded with excitement when Vavi bid farewell to President Thabo Mbeki, saying the workers would not miss him.

Crowd swells in Durban
By midday, a protest march had swelled to about 4 000 people in Durban. As they marched slowly along Pixley ka Seme Street carrying placards and posters, helicopters circled and police posted themselves at intersections along the route.

Along the way, marchers sang songs about African National Congress president Jacob Zuma. The crowd carried placards reading: “Down with high fuel prices”.

Meanwhile, the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu) by midday reported that 93% of its members had not gone to work.

Andre Kriel, the union’s deputy general secretary, said: “In KwaZulu-Natal, dozens of large factories including Lilanie Clothing (with more than 1 200 workers), Allwear (1 200 workers), Playtex (970 workers) and Profortune (700 workers) reported full participation of workers in the protest action.”

He said the union was proud that it managed the shutdown of the industry “in a manner that is sensitive to the needs off its customers”.

Gauteng action
In Johannesburg, metro police dispersed 2 000 protesters who were burning tyres on the Honeydew stretch of Beyers Naude Drive.

Spokesperson Wayne Minnaar said police addressed the crowd who had gathered in support of the Cosatu strike and asked them to disperse.

The crowd complied and police removed the burning tyres. “We are going to monitor the situation the whole day because these protesters might return,” Minnaar said.

Earlier on Wednesday the protesters danced and sung in the road, blocking Beyers Naude Drive as far as Peter Road in Honeydew, said Minnaar.

“Beyers Naude has since been opened and the traffic is flowing freely,” he said.

In Pretoria, a Cosatu delegation delivered a memorandum of grievances to the Department of Minerals and Energy shortly before 1pm and said that electricity tax should not be borne by the poor.

The memorandum — which was received by departmental spokesperson Bheki Khumalo — called on the government to invest in power generation and the launch of an energy-efficiency campaign.

Khumalo gave his apologies to the protesters on behalf of the Minister of Minerals and Energy, Buyelwa Sonjica, who was not available. He said Sonjica was in the Democratic Republic of Congo to discuss electricity issues between the two countries.

The protesters, wearing red T-shirts and some holding sticks, then continued peacefully down Visagie Street towards the Union Buildings while a police helicopter circled overhead.

Bus and train services in Gauteng came to a complete halt in the morning. “There are no trains running in Gauteng, obviously due to no staff,” said national Metrorail spokesperson Sibusiso Ngomane.

“We will review the situation at 2pm and we might be able to run some trains in the afternoon subject to staff availability,” he added.

Metrorail was running services on a “very limited scale” in the rest of the country.

“There are no buses running,” Johannesburg City spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane said. “Normally we try to make sure that we have a skeleton staff in the morning, but today the drivers did not show up.”

Effects felt countrywide
Listed retailer Foschini was hit by the strike, spokesperson Doug Murray confirmed on Wednesday.

“We’re still trying to establish how many branches have been closed,” Murray said. “The closures are mainly in the Johannesburg CBD, Pretoria and Durban.”

Stores in the Edcon Group were also affected, said a spokesperson who did not wish to be named.

Foschini stores include @home, American Swiss, Markham and Totalsports, while Edcon stores include Edgars, Jet and CNA.