Is South Africa at a Turning Point?

About 1000 farmworkers gather on the sportsfield in Stofland, De Doorns to await word on wage negotiations between Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, famers and union representatives. Farm workers in De Doorns embarked on a violent two-week strike demanding their wages be increased from R69 per day to R150 per day. De Doorns unrest then spread to 15 other agricultural areas on the Western Cape. Photo: Peter Luhanga/WCN

The complexity of the meaning and implications of strikes often come to the fore when offensive strikes force the attention of the state, capitalists and civil society. They lead to a varied level of interpretation of not only how events unfolded but also the impact they have made.

Strikes are a key manifestation of the class struggle over the distribution of national income and reform of the labour relations system. When offensive strikes occur they can generate an extraordinary amount of pressure on the social system which often leads to structural changes such as the reconfiguring of the industrial relations system, the economy or political system. These kinds of events are referred to as a ‘turning point’.

In the immediate post-apartheid period, the trend of increased frequency of strikes continued, with the highest number of strikes in South African history of 1 324 strikes taking place in 1998. However, between 2000 and 2009, the strike frequency averaged 71 per annum, which was even lower than the 1960s and largely defensive in character.

Despite the low frequency of strike action, the year 2007 marked the beginning of a new militancy. The 2007 strikes are largely attributed to the huge support of the offensive Public Service strike, involving some 700 000 workers which was closely followed by the more successful wave of 26 offensive strikes mainly led by workers committees at FIFA 2010 World Cup construction sites.

There was an unprecedented increase in the share of unprotected (mainly wildcat) strikes from 44% in 2012, 52% in 2013, 48% in 2014 and 55% in 2015. The offensive wildcat strikes of December 2011 to April 2012 were led by workers committees of post office workers against labour broking which at the same time exposed the lack of will by unions to take up the struggle of non-standard workers. These workers ended the system of labour broking in the post office, ensured permanent employment of 5000 workers and doubled the salaries of workers to R4 000. The post office workers became the first group of workers in South African history to reverse labour broking and win a 100% increase in wages.

Both the Marikana strike and the Western Cape farmworkers’ strike started in August 2012.  Rock drillers initiated a wildcat strike at Lonmin, a platinum mine in pursuit of a pay raise to R12 500 per month. The strike was led by an independent strike committee and the majority union, the NUM, actively opposed the strike siding with Lonmin management. On 16 August, a peaceful assembly of workers was forcefully broken up by a special paramilitary task team killing 34 mineworkers. This became known as the Marikana Massacre. This strike secured only a partial victory, with a 14% increase in wages.

The Western Cape farmworkers’ strike lasted from 27 August 2012 to 22 January 2013. The strike and associated community uprisings spread to 25 rural towns and was led largely by seasonal workers coordinated by locally based vanguard groups. The farmworkers’ strike was historic as it was the first strike wave in the post-apartheid period to unite workers and communities, and this forced the hand of government to announce a 52% increase in the daily minimum wage. In general, employment figures in the agricultural sector indicate a trend toward stabilisation of employment along with a significant shift from casual and seasonal to permanent employment, marking the beginning to changes in the labour process brought about through the agency of farmworkers against capital.

A year after the farmworkers strike, on 22 January, the longest and most expensive strike in South African history broke out in the platinum industry. The 70 000 strong, five-month platinum strike hit 40% of global production. The stoppage dragged the economy into contraction in the first quarter of 2014 and cost the companies almost R24bn in lost revenue. The final agreement between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the three platinum producers included a R1 000 per month salary increase or 20% increase for lower earners.

On 1 July, just over a week after the platinum strike, the 220 000 workers of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) downed tools, demanding a salary increase of 12%. The strike, lasting one month without pay, concluded with a 4% real wage increase. While labour brokers will not be banned as NUMSA had demanded, it was agreed that a number of regulatory instruments would be introduced, including the appointment of compliance officers to act on complaints of alleged abuse and noncompliance.

The workers’ strike wave gave impetus to the nationwide 2015 student “Fees Must Fall” protests at higher education institutions and later expanded by including the “Outsourcing Must Fall” campaign. In the absence of leadership by the National Health Education Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU), workers were mainly being led by workers committees which developed a call for an end to outsourcing at higher education institutions nationally. The combined actions by students, workers and academics ensured that almost all universities across South Africa agreed to end outsourcing on campuses and to employ workers on the same conditions as full-time workers, resulting in most wage increases being between 66%-163%. This event was an expression of a new level of consciousness and unity with significant implications for the power relations at tertiary institutions and constitutes the third instance of a reversal of the labour process restructuring in the current period.

However, does the gradual increase in number of offensive strikes starting in 2007, the occurrence of the Marikana Massacre and the farmworkers’ revolt of 2012, the five-month platinum strike (the longest in South Africa’s history) and the one-month metalworkers’ strike in 2014 indicate that a new wave of offensive strikes has begun? Or is the latter just a short-lived ‘revival’ upheaval on a depressive long wave of defensive strikes? A key question is: has South Africa reached a turning point?

There are several structural dimensions that are being affected. On the economic side, we have seen direct challenges and changes to the labour process and huge costs associated with strikes to the economy. On the industrial relations level, there is pressure by business and the formal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, for changes in the law to undermine the right to strike. Further, in January 2015, the Labour Relations Amendment Act took effect and ensures that vulnerable groups of employees, especially those employed through labour brokers, get adequate protection. On the political level, a new opposition to the ANC, the Economic Freedom fighters (EFF), was formed in 2013, and the more militant NUMSA was expelled from COSATU in 2015, setting the stage for the launch of an alternative, politically independent federation (SAFTU). Also, in the 2016 municipal elections, the support for the ANC as the manager of neo-liberalism in South Africa fell, indicating a loss of hegemony.

While some have argued that the Marikana strike wave is not a turning point, they have limited their analysis to a formalistic view of the events as a specific ‘labour dispute’ gone wrong and cite the fact that the labour relations system remains intact. Other mainstream economists instead focus on the irrationality of the actions in terms of losses of incomes to workers. Does the fact that Marikana workers lost 12% of their annual wages, that R10 billion in wages were lost in the 2014 platinum strike, or that NUMSA workers only gained 4% in its one-month strike, relegate the strike waves as defensive incidents?

By focusing on the formalism of industrial relations and economistic views, the above perspectives fail to comprehend the complexity of strike dynamics and the historical process of class struggle that is being unleashed. As Marx said regarding the dynamic of strikes:

  In order to rightly appreciate the value of strikes and combinations, we must not allow ourselves to be blinded by the apparent insignificance of their economical results, but hold, above all things, in view their moral and political consequences (Marx 1853).

This article, based on extracts from Eddie Cottle’s Long Waves of Strikes in South Africa: 1900-2015 and others can be found at, and was first published in the South African Labour Bulletin (Volume 41 Number 1). Cottle is a PHD candidate at Institute for Social and Economic Research, at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

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