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The rise or fall of trade unions in South Africa: The Marikana incident

12th October 2012

By: In On Africa IOA


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On 16 August 2012, South Africa saw the most gruesome killing of workers post-apartheid in Marikana during the Lonmin mineworkers’ illegal strike. Thirty-four mineworkers were gunned down by police in what will go down in history as the ‘Marikana massacre’. Demonstrators were calling for salary hikes from about US$ 500 (ZAR 4,000) to US$ 1 500 (ZAR 12,500) among other grievances of better working and living conditions and lack of concern for workers by management. This sad event shocked the world and stirred the debate on the role of trade unions in the country. Such a catastrophic incident could have been prevented by more responsible trade unionism. The Marikana incident has also raised questions of whether this event marks the ‘rise’ or ‘fall’ of trade unions in South Africa.
This CAI paper attempts to unravel the role of trade unions, particularly in democratic South Africa, in light of the increasingly challenging environment they face. An evaluation is also made of their successes and failures regarding their mandate to foster national development. To what extent have trade unions contributed to the Marikana incident? Are trade unions becoming more powerful or weaker in managing labour unrest and disputes? What then is the future of the mining sector in South Africa? This paper endeavours to respond to these intriguing questions whose answers may have fundamental socio-economic ramifications.
Trade unions and development
Historically in South Africa, trade unions’ function was primarily political as organised labour was instrumental in advocating for democracy. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), after its establishment in 1985 unifying contending unions and federations, was instrumental in the struggle against apartheid.(2) The federation coordinated a range of paralysing wage and general strikes and drummed up support from factories and towns countrywide.(3) COSATU is currently the largest trade union federation in South Africa boasting 21 affiliated unions and declared membership of 2.2 million in 2012.(4)
Trade unions now have a broader role to play in national development over and above protecting workers’ rights and improving their economic status. Trade unions should promote social change and justice, harmonious industrial relations and encourage human resource development. “Trade unions play a leading role in civil society” (5) that includes keeping the Government in check on matters affecting the general public. For instance, COSATU has been unwavering on the state of unequal distribution of income in South Africa. No country can have meaningful economic growth where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The federation is also a strategic partner in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) which champions HIV/AIDS education as well as accessibility of treatment.(6)
Disputes should be settled efficiently and effectively to avoid conflicts and industrial action that would have adverse economic consequences. Trade unions should ensure workers’ demands are justifiable and within reason and also that workers’ rights are not infringed in any way. Changes in working conditions and wages should be sustainable and should not be a financial burden to business. At the same time, trade unions should acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict of interest between labour and capital that can never be completely eroded; workers want higher wages and owners higher profits.(7) It is the role of trade unions to facilitate a balanced consensus for parties involved.
COSATU, the African National Congress (ANC) - the ruling political party - and the South African Communist Party are all part of an alliance called the Tripartite Alliance.(8) Whether or not COSATU should belong to this alliance has been a subject of debate, with some affiliates calling for greater independence from the ruling party and others claiming that it strategically positions COSATU to shape policy as well as giving it political influence valuable to members.(9)
Challenges faced in South Africa
There are very few prospects for growth in employment in the country in the near future as the World Bank has further lowered the economic growth estimates for 2012 from 3.1% to 2.5%.(10) This is not good news for South Africa as the high unemployment rate may lead to civil unrest which will deter investment and further cripple the economy.
The South African labour market has unique characteristics that pose serious challenges to effective trade unionism. South Africa has an unemployment crisis at hand that threatens to cripple the Rainbow Nation. The unemployment rate in the second quarter of 2012 was 24.9% with a labour absorption rate of 40.9%.(11) No other middle-income country has such an unprecedented rate of unemployment, according to COSATU.(12) Prospects for growth of employment in the ‘formal sector’ are grim as the country is set for an economic downturn, while shortcomings in technological achievements form a permanent threat to the already seriously eroded levels of real wages.
The South African Government has been promising to create jobs since 1994 but the Government cannot sustainably provide jobs and this should not be its mandate. The implementation of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy in 1999 failed to bear fruit in the labour market until 2003 when labour absorption began to increase but progress was deterred with the beginning of recession in late 2008 as job losses increased.(13) Instead, Government should focus on providing an environment that encourages entrepreneurship and job creation. However, the South African labour market is heavily regulated relative to other developing countries and is currently ranked the 7th most restrictive out of 139 countries worldwide.(14) The relatively high wage and bureaucracy has shunned foreign investors who have preferred taking their business to Asian countries, such as China, with lower wage demands and relaxed labour laws. If the Government fails to take strategic action against this, South Africa will continue on the path of exporting its jobs to other nations.
The key acts are the Labour Relations Act (LRA) of 1995, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) of 1997, the Employment Equity Act (EEA) of 1998 and the Skills Development Act (SDA) of 1999. The LRA and BCEA were amended in 2002, while the EEA was amended in 2006. Although this legislation was introduced to protect employees, this has successfully created a catch-22 situation, as the negative spin-off of scaring off investors has been counterproductive. Upcoming entrepreneurs and small, medium and micro-enterprises also find it taxing to satisfy the requirements of these acts.
Bargaining councils consisting of trade unions and employer organisations are the fundamental institutions engaged in the legislative system of collective bargaining and wage determination in South Africa’s labour market.(15) Wage formation can take place through sectoral determination, non-statutory collective bargaining and wage determination and extensions of and exemptions from bargaining council agreements. Workers join unions in the hope of taking advantage of the wage premium associated with union membership and having their legitimate rights protected.
South Africa has an education system that has been heavily critised for being below standards and a lack of skills development.  In the 2012/2013 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum, South Africa was ranked 140 out of 144 countries in the quality of educational system category.(16) This has resulted in the creation of a large uncompetitive labour force that becomes structurally unemployed.
Is COSATU losing its grip?
Unfavourable labour market and economic conditions have created daunting challenges for a trade union movement that is deeply rooted in the ANC and public sector. Failed Government policies in alleviating unemployment have made it difficult for COSATU to keep justifying and supporting ANC policies. “The federation has also failed in being adequately strategic and independent in its relationship with the ANC and risks getting consumed and distracted from its strategic and tactical goals through cooptation with the ANC.”(17)
The advent of breakaway unions and loss of union membership to such unions is symptomatic of the depth of conflict within COSATU itself. The Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union (AMCU) is a workers’ movement created in 2001 due to dissatisfaction towards the National Union of Mine workers (NUM), the main member of COSATU. Infighting within NUM has led to the union losing support and membership to AMCU, especially in the platinum sector.(18) NUM has lost credibility with workers as the union is regarded as a means of acquiring powerful government positions and board directorship in mining companies.(19) Cyril Ramaphosa, the first General Secretary of NUM, sits on the board of directors of Lonmin as his company, Shanduka, is Lonmin’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) partner.(20) Despite the growing support, AMCU is not the dominant union.
NUM has more than 300,000 members compared to AMCU with 50,000 members.(21) Given AMCU’s hand in the protest of Lonmin mineworkers, the union may very well be COSATU’s most fierce competitor, despite its size, and one that would keep COSATU on its toes as it competes for membership. Some competition may result in better service delivery or may undesirably cause unnecessary rivalry as the trade unions attempt to out compete each other at the expense of workers.
In its 2012 Socio-Economic Report, COSATU has been forced to pay attention to the anger and disappointment of its membership as it clearly sends out a wake-up call to its ally, the ANC.(22) The effects of ‘not doing’ have already bitten the federation hard in the aftermath of the Marikana tragedy, the rejection of NUM and the breakout of service delivery protests across the country.(23)  The report is “highly critical of factionalism, patronage and corruption in the ANC” as well as that the ruling party policies have failed in “unemployment reduction, poverty elimination and the reduction of social and economic inequality.”(24) How the ANC will handle the harsh criticism from its alliance partner is worth looking forward to.
The case of the Marikana fallout
Workers of Lonmin embarked on an illegal strike demanding their salaries increased from ZAR 4,000 (US$ 500) to ZAR 12,500 (US$ 1,500) in August 2012, a whopping 300% increase. NUM and AMCU were supposedly leading these strikes. What they failed to anticipate was the senseless loss of life that ensued.
In the days leading up to the Marikana shooting, 10 miners died in clashes between two groups of workers each led by NUM and AMCU. This should have sent warning bells to the respective trade union leaders, management of Lonmin, the police and departments of Labour or Mineral resources to intervene and prevent further bloodshed.(25) About 34 more mine workers were gunned down in clashes with the police in the days that followed.
Union leaders failed to provide direction and leadership to workers leaving them to run amok. The unions should not have supported the illegal strike but should have rather followed the set processes to express their grievances.  This was irresponsible on their part and they should shoulder some of the blame.
The Lonmin strike has finally come to an end with workers receiving not only a hefty increase but a once-off bonus of ZAR 2,000 (US$ 240). This seems like a quick fix tactic the company has used in order to resume operations. Many more questions are proved by this act of ‘kindness’. What really is the justification of rewarding an illegal strike? Will the country see the end of these wildcat work stoppages, even in other sectors of the economy? What happens the next time workers decide they want higher salaries? How much faith is there in COSATU and its affiliates in providing the country with responsible trade unionism? The Lonmin saga seems to have left more questions than answers.
To better trade unionism
Not only are human resources the forces behind, they are also the ultimate beneficiaries of development.(26) This strategically places trade unions in a position to influence and propagate growth.
COSATU, as the largest labour federation in South Africa, yields a lot of power; power that could be effectively used as an agent in holistic development efforts. Acknowledging the deteriorating labour market conditions and the structural adjustments its institutions have to go through is the first step to improved trade unionism. Trade unions should not lead irresponsible collective bargaining and strikes that are detrimental to workers and the economy. Wage demands should be sustainable and take into account market and economic conditions. Increase in salaries and wages may have inflationary pressures as production costs are passed on to consumers as well as demand of goods and services push prices up.
COSATU is not a political party and, although it has historic ties to the ruling party, union leaders should deter from using the union as a platform to advocate for their political inclination. They also need to protect their autonomy from political parties in order to be objective and unbiased in their policies.
Trade unions can stimulate job creation through skills development. Human capital development through education, training and health programmes are crucial in reinforcing a strategic factor in advancing development by improving the quality and efficiency of workers.(27)
Concluding remarks
COSATU and its allies will have to grow in line with the increasingly complicated and challenging economic environment they face. This can be achieved through improved contribution to national development and promoting responsible trade unionism. Whether or not COSATU will live up to the occasion is yet to be seen.
Although the Marikana incident is now history, the memory and the scars linger on. This sad experience has afforded the Government, labour and businesses an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to strive for better industrial and employee relations. Transformation of the mining industry is necessary to improve working and living conditions. If the causes leading up to the event are not decisively dealt with, sadly this may not be the last we see of such events. This may just be the dreaded beginning.
Written by Rutendo Dhliwayo (1)
(1) Contact Rutendo Dhliwayo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Industry and Business Unit (
(2) Torres, L., ‘Amandla. Ngawethu? The trade union movement in South Africa and political change’, FAFO-report 328, 2000,
(3) Ibid.
(4) ‘COSATU membership: All the facts’, Politicsweb, 9 September 2012,
(5) Webster, E., ‘Trade unions and political parties in Africa: New alliances, strategies and partnerships’, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, International Trade Union Cooperation, Briefing papers No.3/2007, 2007,
(6) Collins, S.C., ‘The role of the trade union in post democratic South Africa’, Faculty of Law, University of Port Elizabeth, 2004,
(7) Ko Tee Hock, J., ‘The role of trade unions in national development’, A collection of paper series from Tripartite Forum, 1992,
(8) Collins, S.C., ‘The role of the trade union in post democratic South Africa’, Faculty of  Law, University of Port Elizabeth, 2004,
(9) Misra, N., ‘Strategic unionism: The political role of  the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in South Africa and what it means for black workers’, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of  Technology, September 2008,
(10) Bauer, N., ‘Entrenched inequality threatens SA’s future’, Mail & Guardian, 24 July 2012,
(11) ‘Quarterly labour force survey: Quarter 2 (April to June) 2012’, Statistics South Africa, 2012,
(12) Price, C., ‘Youth unemployment: South Africa’s ticking bomb’, Mail & Guardian, 21 February 2012,
(13) von Fintel, D. and Burger R., 2009. “The South African labour market in the global financial crisis: Recovering lost gains”, in Hofmeyr, J. (ed.), Recession and recovery. 2009 Transformation Audit. African Minds / IJR: Cape Town.
(14) Schwab, K., ‘The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013’, World Economic Forum Insight report, 2012,
(15) Bhorat, H., van der Westhuizen, C. and Goga, S., ‘Analysing wage formation in the South African labour market: The role of bargaining councils’, Development Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town, September 2007,
(16) Schwab, K., ‘The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013’, World Economic Forum Insight report, 2012,
(17) Misra, N., ‘Strategic unionism: The political role of  the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in South Africa and what it means for black workers’, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of  Technology, September 2008,
(18) Tamukamoyo, H., ‘The Marikana shooting a failure of key South African institutions’, Institute for Security Studies, 21 August 2012 .
(19) Kota, A., ‘Marikana mineworkers’ massacre – a massive escalation in the war on the poor’ International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 18 August 2012.
(20) Lonmin website,
(21) Creamer, M., ‘Emerging AMCU mine union favours competitive coexistence’, Mining Weekly, 6 June 2012,
(22) Munusamy, R., ‘Dear ANC, you’re failing. Love COSATU’, Daily Maverick, 7 September 2012,
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Tamukamoyo, H., ‘The Marikana shooting a failure of key South African institutions’, Institute for Security Studies, 21 August 2012.
(26) Ko Tee Hock, J., ‘The role of trade unions in national development’, A collection of paper series from Tripartite Forum, 1992,
(27) African Development Bank. 1998. Annual Report. Oxford, Oxford University Press for the African Development Bank cited in H. Thomas, 1999, Trade unions and development, Discussion paper series No. 100, International Institute for Labour Studies: Geneva.


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