News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
15 Dec 2018
9:35 am

Why SA needs a Thatcher who can hobble the bully unions

William Saunderson-Meyer

We can continue with our spineless refusal to face the fact that the unions – whose challenge to apartheid was critical for democracy – are now destroying it.

Protesters during the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) march from Cape Town CBD to Parliament on May 01, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. Picture: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach

It’s not whether SA needs a Margaret Thatcher. It’s simply when and in whom her spirit will be reincarnated.

The current wage negotiations have been exceptionally violent. It’s yet another sign that the union movement is too strong and also, paradoxically, that the power of organised labour is waning.

Last week strikers in the plastics sector allegedly necklaced a security guard and burnt him to death. Three people have died in the Sibanye-Stillwater mining strike and the practice of intimidating and assaulting non-striking “rats”, tacitly tolerated by the union leadership, has put dozens in hospital.

Moneyweb reports three CEOs have been assaulted and one died “as a result of attacks on his factory”. The homes of non-striking workers have been torched and 17 factories vandalised, petrol bombed or looted, with property damage and lost production in excess of R100m.

The union leadership has been predictably guileful. Numsa says the cause of the deaths and mayhem is the “psychological violence” inflicted on workers by employers.

Unions have been able to get away with such nonsense for so long because of the pivotal role Cosatu has historically had in the tripartite alliance. That may be slowly changing.

Despite fierce union opposition, the government has legislated for strike ballots to be secret, a regulation that was dropped in 1995 in response to Cosatu lobbying. There are a number of reasons why the union voice is being listened to with more scepticism.

First, outside the public sector, union membership has slipped from a peak of 26% two decades ago to below 20% today.

Second, the movement is split, leaving Cosatu with less monolithic power in the workplace and consequently a weaker role in the alliance. The downside is such union rivalry may escalate radical and confrontational behaviour, as each seeks to outdo the other in the scramble for members.

Existing levels of union militancy are already a concern for the rating agencies. If the situation gets worse, the government will be forced to act.

While it’s difficult to imagine President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former leader of the powerful NUM as a black Thatcher, something has to give. And Thatcher has shown exactly what it is – the excessive power of the unions.

There are good reasons why Thatcher remains an anathema. Deeply divisive policies administered by a haughty and condescending matron can be psychologically scarring.

For the British populace to be told to drink up a vile medicine because it is “for your own good”, was bad enough. Almost worse is to find that she was right. Nevertheless, her de-fanging a trade union movement that had become recklessly destructive transformed the UK’s political landscape and set the stage for a remarkable economic renaissance.

Ironically, it was the unions’ gauntlet thrown down before a Labour government in the ’78- ’79 “winter of discontent” that led directly to Thatcher’s victory the following year. And it’s a tacit acknowledgement of the necessity of the union movement being reined in, that no Labour government since has reversed the curbs she placed on union activity, such as secret ballots.

We can continue with our spineless refusal to face the fact that the unions – whose challenge to apartheid was critical for democracy – are now destroying it. Alternatively, no matter how odious we might find her, we can learn from Thatcher.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.

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