Was the moment the Lonmin platinum mine management awarded a 22% wage increase to their workers, the moment of truth for COSATU? Was it the moment the trade union federation lost its grip on the politics and economy of South Africa? Was it the moment that respect and appreciation for human capital dawned on the industry leaders of South Africa?
The Lonmin platinum mine strike, a deadly crisis with 46 people killed, sent shock waves through the South African society and international markets in the past six weeks. How did this catastrophe happen despite all the labour legislation and trade unions in South Africa? Where were the leaders and negotiators of the trade unions while this was happening?
The news that a wage agreement had been reached in Marikana between Lonmin platinum mine management and worker representatives brought great joy to many. It ended one of the lengthiest and most violent strikes in South Africa’s history. The strike claimed 46 lives, lasted 40 days and resulted in millions of rand in production losses. The labour unrest and violence had a negative influence on labour relations and production at several other mines in the area.
The strike exposed the inept collective bargaining practices in the mining industry, the depressing wages and the squalid conditions in which workers live with their families. The fact that thousands of the workers were members of trade unions had made no difference to their lives. Little mention was made of trade union involvement during the negotiation process, which led to the agreement. Credit for the breakthrough in the workers' negotiations went to Bishop Jo Seoka, the President of the SA Council of Churches and a worker leader Zolisa Bodlani. The CCMA facilitated the negotiation process. The CCMA expressed its appreciation to all parties involved in the Lonmin wage dispute for their contribution to developing a mutually acceptable settlement.
The question that begs to be answered is why were the SACC and CCMA involved and ultimately successful and where were the trade union negotiators during this crisis? Why were they distracted from delivering their unique value proposition of ensuring social justice in the workplace and a sound employer value proposition? Had the trade unions become too cosy and involved in the economic liberation struggle of the ANC government? Were the aspirations of trade union leaders for positions in government leading them astray? Had the role of trade unions as facilitators of sound industrial relations and custodians of social justice, fair compensation, career aspirations and skills development suffer as a result of political activism and political office aspirations? Where were the conversations, initiatives and policies that ensure human dignity, workers’ rights, decent work and solidarity between employees and employers? Why did the strike end with the involvement of people of the spirit? Why was the help of a man of the cloth needed? The only answer could be that trade union officials don’t possess the emotional intelligence and HR acumen, skills and knowledge to ensure a fair value and respect for human capital and social justice in the workplace and that they have not kept their eyes on the ball. Maybe they also don’t know the value proposition of a trade union.
Trade unions are recognized for a set of militant and fraternal functions. Through their militant functions they attain higher wages and better working conditions; they raise the status of workers as a part of industry and they protect labourers against victimization and injustice. Through their fraternal functions they take up welfare measures to improve the morale, dignity and self-confidence of workers; they encourage sincerity and discipline among workers and promote opportunities for promotion and growth. They also protect women workers against discrimination and exploitation. Two of the most competitive nations in the world, nations that rely absolutely on human capital for sustained competitiveness, Switzerland and Germany, rely on trade unions for the stellar employee engagement their companies and industries enjoy. The Marikana event is a Moment of Truth because it is time for fission within COSATU. In nuclear fission, big things are split into smaller things with a resulting atomic explosion! It is time for COSATU to split into smaller specialized skill entities that can better service and support it’s more than two million members! This will ensure that the vision and goals of the national economic development plan will become a reality within a shorter timeframe.
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