Will Sisulu stamp out union fires, or spark an inferno?

The newly appointed public service and administration minister will this week begin navigating government’s way through the public sector wage negotiations in earnest. If a strike ensues, South Africa’s economy will pay dearly.

Last week, President Jacob Zuma moved Sisulu from the defence ministry to the department of public service and administration in a Cabinet reshuffle.

While her move was widely interpreted as a demotion, she now wields the political power to quickly resolve the impasse at which government and unions find themselves – or spark a campaign of damaging industrial action. 

Sisulu enters the fray at a delicate time, after government pulled out of the negotiations on Friday after “losing patience” with unions.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), representing 14 state unions in the negotiations, is demanding an 8% annual raise and a housing allowance of R1 500, with government offering 6.5% and R900 in return.

The department of finance made provisions for a 5% increase for public servants in the February budget, and says the government cannot afford any more than is already being offered without other state programmes being adversely affected.

Sisulu will meet with all relevant parties this week in an attempt to resolve matters.

Billions at stake
However, Sisulu’s reputation as a union-buster and her steely demeanour could work against attempts to end the standoff and, worse still, could result in strike action that will cost the country’s economy billions of rand.

History counts against her, as Sisulu was accused of employing hostile tactics towards unions in 2009, when she fired 1 300 striking soldiers after they downed tools in protest against poor living conditions.

Sisulu also went on to neutralise the influence of the defence unions when she established the military ombud’s office.

Many in Cosatu fear that Sisulu is unlikely to budge on the current offer. If a strike results, this would also count as an embarrassment for Zuma just months before Mangaung.

“We warn her that her new portfolio will need a new orientation on her part if we are to have a cordial relationship,” said Sizwe Pamla, the spokesperson for health and education union Nehawu.

Ebrahim Fakir, political analyst at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA) told the Mail & Guardian that Sisulu’s belligerence might jeopardise the government’s position. 

“While I could see what the president is trying to do in terms of engineering a new public service by employing a tough cookie in the position, her style and mode of operation could count against her,” Fakir said. 

“She will need to interact with the unions in such a way that it doesn’t send them running away angry and ready for action. The more she sees this as a demotion – if in fact she does see it that way – the more likely it is that things could turn out very badly for Zuma and the country,” Fakir added.

‘Keep the economy going’
In 2010, a four-week strike in the public sector saw state hospitals and schools either close or operate below capacity as government workers downed tools over a wage dispute.

It was estimated the strike resulted in the loss of 12-million working days and R30-billion from the economy.

Cadiz analyst Adenaan Hardien told the M&G that due to global economic uncertainty already weighing heavily on the South African economy, any strike action could be disastrous.

“Protracted strike action will add to the worsening economic situation in which we find ourselves. The best outcome would be for this to be resolved quickly and for people to concentrate on keeping the economy going,” Hardien said.

This was echoed by Chris Hart, chief economist at Investment Solutions.

“The last thing we need at the moment is a strike. Anything that will adversely affect our productivity won’t only jeopardise already threatened exports, but also severely pressurise our ability for sustainable job growth,” Hart said.

Sisulu’s spokesperson, Ndivhuwo Wa Ha Mabaya, would not comment on the minister’s planned actions to resolve the standoff between government and unions. However, Mabaya was quick to dismiss claims Sisulu was unhappy with her new post.

“The minister is privileged and honoured to be given the opportunity to serve in the government of President Jacob Zuma – in whatever capacity he sees fit. Ministers don’t appoint themselves, and minister Sisulu is happy with her current position,” he told the M&G.

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