The word ‘shutdown’ has increasingly become one of the most loosely bandied about words in South Africa.
Anyone with a grievance – be they students, unions or communities – grabs a microphone, issues a press statement or takes to social media to threaten to shut down a city or an institution.
Last week, the SA Municipal Workers’ Union threatened to shut down the Johannesburg CBD, probably because mayor Herman Mashaba has not refunded the union’s general secretary for a botched 1980s perm.
A number of trade unions actually managed to shut down our national airline, demanding salary increases and rejecting SAA management’s proposed retrenchments of 900 workers.
Since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in February that Eskom was to be split into three units, various unions and federations have threatened to shut down the power utility and, by extension, the country if this went ahead.
The list can go on and on, but the point is that we have this obsession with shutting down things while the country is in crisis.
Because the unions are the loudest shutdowners, it is necessary for us to focus on them.
Far from being the forward-looking and clear-thinking force that it was in years gone by, the trade union movement has evolved into an intransigent bunch of perennial naysayers.
It has become about just fighting narrow battles that do not take into account the national interest or the long-term interests of their members and their families.
They are guilty of knee-jerk engagements.
The standoff at SAA is a classic example of this. It is common knowledge to anyone who does not live in a Mormon commune in Utah that SAA is in deep, deep trouble.
With debt sitting at R20 billion and the board and management unable to even produce results because of the mess the books are in, there are some who even question whether it should still be regarded as a going concern.
Yet the trade unions are demanding salary increases of 8.5% and are rejecting the necessary actions required to keep the company alive.
They were even prepared to further risk the life of the airline by going on strike.
One cannot blame the employees for being anxious about their future and wanting to top up their salaries in these tough economic times.
But they have leaders who should show leadership.
The same applies at Eskom, where trade unions forced management to back off from austerity measures that included a 0% salary increase while the company was plotting its recovery.
The unions used their political muscle and the implicit threat of sabotaging the country’s electricity supply to strong-arm management into giving them bankrupting increases.
Trade union reaction to the restructuring of state-owned enterprises has been nothing short of infantile.
The National Union of Metalworkers of SA greeted the proposed break-up of Eskom with a venomous diatribe that associated the logical move with Ramaphosa’s “right wing, neoliberal capitalist agendas”, and warnings that the “detrimental” side of things would include “retrenchments, closure of businesses and creation of ghost towns”.
The National Union of Mineworkers also conspiratorially alleged that it was meant to “enrich the few elites”, and even vowed to sabotage the electricity supply.
“If these demands [to reverse the proposals] are not met, we will shut down electricity generation, transmission and distribution, as such plunging the country into darkness,” the union said.
The same applies in the private sector, where industries have been battered by unnecessary actions that served only to prove the militancy of the leadership.
When Finance Minister Tito Mboweni released his paper for comment, the reaction was predictably a rejection of the proposals.
Not that they were obliged to comment on something they did not agree with.
But they did not even engage with Mboweni’s paper, outrightly condemning it as neoliberal and vowing to ensure the ideas would never be concretised.
And so we sit here, stuck in a rut and unable to move the economy forward.
The unions rightly point out that the working forces were not responsible for the wreckage that is state-owned enterprises.
They correctly state that it was government, boards and executives of the state capture era who oversaw the destructive looting of that time.
What they fail to say, however, is that they facilitated the onset of that era by placing in power the chief enabler of state capture.
It was the leadership of the two largest trade union federations – when they were all still happy comrades in Cosatu – who drove the Polokwane revolution that got us to where we are.
Granted, most of them saw the error of their ways, but the horse was far gone by then.
The courageous and responsible thing to do on the part of those who are in trade union leadership, is to deliver the bad news to their constituencies about the real state of this economy and the specific entities they work for.
The courageous thing would be to tell them about the bitter medicine that must be swallowed for the sake of the country.
That is highly unlikely, though.
It is so much easier to be populist, even as you strangle the hen.