from Africa in Transition

Labor Unrest in South Africa

September 11, 2013

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Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa

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Labor and Employment

Labor unrest is widespread in South Africa today. At present industrial action affects construction, gold mining, gas stations, car manufacturing, textile, and clothing. Greg Nicolson provides a useful overview and context for this latest wave of strikes, “South Africa, A Strike Nation,” in the Daily Maverick.

He concludes that poor economic growth combined with failure to keep the promise of a transformed post-apartheid South Africa “has trapped South Africa in a continued cycle of industrial action.” He quotes a Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) spokesman as saying that high levels of inequality, rising prices, and higher cost of living for the poor lead to strikes. Labor unions in South Africa are politicized and compete with each other–the 2012 strike at the Marikana platinum mine and subsequent massacre had a union rivalry dimension. Often trade union rivalry leads to unrealistic wage demands that are curtain risers for subsequent strikes.

It was widely anticipated at the end of apartheid that the establishment of "non-racial" democracy would lead to high levels of foreign investment and the transformation of the South African economy, which would lift the population out of poverty. While there was foreign investment, it did not prove to be transformative. By international standards, South Africa’s growth rate has been respectable (it is now about 3 percent a year). But it has not been nearly high enough to lift millions out of poverty. Meanwhile, income inequality is probably worse than it was in the last years of apartheid. The difference between white and black incomes is greater now than it was then, notwithstanding the appearance of a few new black millionaires.

In the short term, if the world economy continues to recover and commodities prices hold firm, higher wages may become possible, with fewer strikes. But, while urban poverty with low wages is highly visible in the cities, it is in the rural areas that poverty is most profound. Bringing rural dwellers into the modern economy is a major challenge for any South African government.