Three-year settlement agreement in metals and engineering sector a major achievement

22nd August 2017

Three-year settlement agreement in metals and engineering sector a major achievement

The three-year wage settlement reached in the metals and engineering sector, without a strike, represents a major achievement by all involved, argues Kaizer Nyatsumba.

To some who were either too young or not born at the time, South Africa’s transition from apartheid to the democracy that it is today was both easy and uncomplicated. All it needed was for the liberation movements to turn up at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park, the venue of the multi-party negotiations in a forum known as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), table their demands to the then-ruling National Party (NP) and get everything that they wanted.

To these people, the situation was quite simple, really: there was a bad side which was on the wrong side of history and represented a system which the United Nations had justly condemned as a crime against humanity, and there was an angelic side that represented everything that was good and to be celebrated. With the situation being so morally clear cut, they contend that there was no need for political compromises at all. Instead, the bad side should have wilted automatically and made all the required concessions, while the side of angels should have claimed all the victories and walked away.

These are the people who, owing to their failure to keep the context of the time in mind, today have the gall to insult the late Nelson Mandela and to denounce him as a man who sold out on the demands made in the ANC’s Freedom Charter, a document that was adopted in Kliptown, Johannesburg in June 1955.

Those of us who lived during that period and who, like me, were fortunate to cover, as a journalist, that momentous history as it unfolded, remember things differently. We know that neither side was defeated at war and that the apartheid government still had the capacity to fight it out to the bitter end, much to the detriment of our beautiful country, hence compromises had to be made on both sides. We remember the palpable political tension then prevalent in the country and the internecine political killings that were routinely taking place in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and some other parts of the country.

We know that, without the leadership offered by Mandela and FW de Klerk on either side, South Africa would not have made as smooth a transition that came to be hailed the world over as a miracle. We know that, in order to make peace, leadership – such as was impressively offered by Madiba and De Klerk – is required on the part of the protagonists. Without such leadership of the kind offered by these two men, which saw them accepting each other as partners who could not do without the other, our transition may well have been far bloodier – or even still born.

Today it has been common for some to rubbish the crucial roles played by Mandela and De Klerk, the men who were co-architects of our relatively peaceful transition. It matters not what their respective motivations were, but the fact remains that these men played a very important role in ensuring a smooth transition from apartheid to democracy. To make peace, one needs a like-minded partner, and Mandela had such a partner in De Klerk.

As these men worked hard to persuade their respective constituents to buy into the deal that their teams were concluding, others – who also called themselves leaders – stood on the side and sniped. On the right there was the triumvirate of the Conservative Party (CP), the Freedom Front and the Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging (AWB), and on the left there were the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) and the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), all of which were implacably opposed to the multi-party negotiations in CODESA.

In the end, the Freedom Front entered the elections at the eleventh hour, like the Inkatha Freedom Party, once General Constand Viljoen and Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi respectively were persuaded to do so. The virulently outspoken but small AWB, AZAPO and PAC, which projected themselves as the true representatives of Afrikaners and black people respectively, continued to criticise the process, remained outside it to the end and did not contest our founding democratic elections. As a result, they were not represented in the first all-inclusive Parliament. Today they are a pale shadow of their former selves.

There is a lesson here: history is made by those who are willing to take risks and to engage in negotiations, and not those who stand by and shout the loudest. The latter are often a post-script in history, if they are not completely forgotten at all, like the fire-eating Eugene Terreblanche’s AWB.

We have just finished the 2017 round of wage negotiations in the metals and engineering sector. Yet again, we were able to conclude a three-year agreement, which will see much-needed stability reigning in a crucial sector of the economy which has been bleeding jobs in the past few years. We agreed on increases of 7% in the current year, 6,75% in the second year and 6,5% in the third year.

That means that, over the next three years, we – employers and labour as partners – can turn our attention to important matters that need to be done to arrest the sector’s decline and turn it around. It means that we can engage in important, non-adversarial discussions about how to improve competitiveness and productivity in the sector, how to advance transformation, and how to stabilise the sector and create new jobs. It means that we can work together, as partners, to lobby the Government on policies that we believe would advance the interests of manufacturing in general and the metals and engineering sector, in particular.

This is the first such settlement agreement reached in the sector in a decade without the unions first embarking on industrial action. There was a week-long strike in the sector in 2007, a two-week strike in 2011 and a month-long strike in 2014. That means that, working as partners, SEIFSA and labour managed to break the cycle of strikes whose duration doubled after each round of negotiations.

By all accounts, this is a major achievement by all concerned. This shows that both sides approached the 2017 wage negotiations with a higher-than-usual level of maturity and realism. It shows that they were acutely aware of the poor state of our economy and the parlous state of the metals and engineering sector. It shows that they reached out to each other and fully accepted each other as indispensable partners, and not enemies.

Reaching this agreement was not easy, and neither we nor labour are fully happy with the settlement reached, but we can live with it. There have been differences aplenty during the negotiations process, but over time we were able to narrow these and to find each other. As is typical of all negotiations, both sides have had to give and to take.
In our view, there are no winners and losers in this settlement. The only winner is the metals and engineering sector and, in the process, the South African economy.

However, just as Mandela and De Klerk had to contend with AZAPO and the PAC on the left and the CP and the AWB on the right, so, too, did SEIFSA and the five trade unions have to deal with their own detractors who excel at shouting slogans but fare terribly when it comes to advancing workable, contemporary solutions. They seem to proceed from the basis that solutions can be imposed on stakeholders, and not negotiated with those stakeholders. They appear to be intent on using pre-1994 methods to solve complex, 2017 challenges.

As a result, we have had to contend with the vituperative insults of NEASA and its fellow travellers on the right, who are intent on precipitating a crisis in the sector by seeking to reverse whatever gains have been made in improving relations between employers and labour. Just as the AWB considered the ANC a sworn enemy, so, too, does NEASA and its fellow travellers consider – and routinely describe – labour (but especially NUMSA) as enemies. As if to make himself feel better about himself, NEASA CEO Gerhard Papenfus routinely has a go at SEIFSA, accusing the Federation of weaknesses just because it has a different worldview from his and sees labour – including NUMSA – as a strategic partner.

So strong is his hatred for the union that Papenfus routinely creates the impression that the other unions do not exist and that our agreement with all five unions is no more than a settlement between his nemeses, SEIFSA and NUMSA. In the process, he reduces the other four unions, including Solidarity, to nonentities.

NEASA has steadfastly held the view that NUMSA is an enemy and the Government in totality is useless. We view both labour in general and the Government as important stakeholders with whom we need to work cooperatively to advance the interests of our economy in particular and our sector in general.

Of course, we have our own differences with these partners, and we never shy away from expressing them forthrightly and yet constructively. We do so in direct engagements with these stakeholders, when we can understand their concerns and can get them to understand ours, and not from public platforms like the media, as is Papenfus’s wont.
We at SEIFSA remain ready to work constructively and cooperatively with all stakeholders, as we have always done, whether they be fellow employers’ organisations or labour unions. We believe that that is the kind of maturity that is required of all of us, as employers, labour and Government, if South Africa is to realise its true potential.

In keeping with our philosophy that solutions will come from a meaningful engagement with all stakeholders, we now look forward to our annual Southern African Metals and Engineering Indaba, which will take place at the IDC Conference Centre in Sandton on 14-15 September 2017. That conference will provide all of us – employers, labour and policy makers – an opportunity to discuss matters of common interest and to engage robustly in search of lasting solutions.

A former newspaper Editor, Kaizer Nyatsumba is the Chief Executive Officer of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (SEIFSA).