Total reform: Stop strike violence by overhauling police, says Cosatu

Cosatu has called for a "total reform of the police's approach to crowd control", saying that the "brutal force" used by police in the past could no longer be tolerated.

"Changing the way in which our police operate will go a long way to breaking the cycles of violence in strikes," it said in a series of reports compiled for its national conference, in which the trade federation raised concerns about the lack of resolution of disputes underlying strike action.

The union’s organisational report, which collated data form various sources including the 2012 Workers' Survey, said that although recent years had not seen the levels of violence that there were during the 2006 security workers strike, there was evidence that strike violence was increasing.

It laid some of the blame for this with management and police but also noted workers' role in violence.

"Around half of the Cosatu members surveyed in the 2012 Cosatu Workers Survey see violence by workers as necessary to achieve an acceptable result," it said. Follow-up work with focus groups revealed that workers often see violence as a last resort, but a necessary one, to get employers to listen to their demands.

"When we go on strike we lose wages, thus we use violence to make sure that the employer listens to our demands fast so that we can go back to work,” said one union member quoted in the report. 

"There is no other way that the workers can be heard. Violence and strike is the language they hear better," said another.

"We have a problem on our hands," said the report. "The problem is not one that can be solved by moral appeals, no matter how abhorrent we might find violence." It called for structural solutions in order to level the playing fields between workers and bosses during strikes. One way to do this, it said, was by restricting the rights of bosses to employ scabs.

The union called for a campaign to change the law on the right of employers to employ scab labour; for more accurate monitoring of police violence during strikes; and for a concerted campaign to reform police practice during strikes and protests.

Meanwhile, President Jacob Zuma called for the restoration of "workplace stability and labour peace" at Cosatu's national conference, which is taking place in Midrand this week.

"Worker rights are enshrined in the Constitution, and there is legislation giving effect to the constitutional provisions. Employers and employees have the mechanisms to manage relations in the workplace. There is no need to resort to violence," said Zuma.

"We have to find a way to restore workplace stability and labour peace. Violence cannot become a culture of our labour relations. Workers and employers need to use the laws of the land which spell out clearly how to handle disputes between themselves," he said.

Zuma said that although the government had deployed law enforcement agencies to stabilise the situation in Marikana, it did not take away the rights of miners and residents to protest peacefully, within the confines of the law.

The ongoing strike has been partly blamed on rivalry between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a Cosatu affiliate, and a breakaway union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

Zuma hit back at opposition parties for comparing a strong police presence in Marikana to apartheid tactics. "We appeal to some political party leaders in the country who have been vocal, to desist from the irresponsible language of comparing the Marikana law enforcement campaign to apartheid-era measures," he told the around 3 000 delegates. "They know that what they are saying is not true. They are unashamedly using a tragedy to score political points instead of putting the interests of the workers and the country first."

On Sunday police blocked a march by miners in Rustenberg, who had planned to protest outside a police station over the police's use of force to break up protests. The miners dispersed peacefully.

Police had earlier raided hostels at Lonmin’s Karee mine, removing pangas, knobkerries and other weapons, and arresting seven people, following a government decision to crack down on violent and illegal protests in the platinum belt late last week.

"The agencies have been told to be firm, but to respect the rights of residents and strikers," he said.

The national treasury estimates that the recent strikes have already cost the country almost R4.5-billion from the national fiscus.

Mining sector needs work
The president reiterated his call for companies to implement the Mining Charter, which requires them to improve housing and living conditions of workers, and to invest in skills development, employment equity, ownership and local community development.

"It is clear that the mining sector needs a lot of discussion in our country," he said.

On Monday Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini, speaking in his opening address at the conference, said that the struggles of the Marikana miners was representative of millions of workers around the country.

"What we see happening in Marikana and elsewhere is that workers are essentially demanding a living wage. Workers are simply saying we produce wealth and we want our reasonable share, and they expect to be given a fair share. It is not just workers from North West that are speaking; this is a reflection of the demands being harboured by millions of our people," he said.

The first day of the conference ended with Vavi reading a declaration on the Marikana massacre, which called for a second independent commission of inquiry to work in parallel with the president's judicial commission. It would look at miners' social and working conditions. – additional reporting by Sapa

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Faranaaz Parker
Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live.

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