Marikana – a Mirror to us all?

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) on Wednesday night asserted that the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) should be the focal point for some of the hard conversations that needed to take place in the country in the post-Marikana period.

Speaking during a panel discussion at the Gordon Instituteof Business Science in Johannesburg on ‘Marikana: a turning point in SA’s industrial relations’, the ILO’s South African Director Vic van Vuuren stated that “we need to get serious about a social pact” and it was not just about a wage freeze. He urged that such discussions needed to include other marginalised groups such as the youth, and said NEDLAC was well-placed to champion these conversations.

Other panellists concurred and made urgent calls for the hard conversations to take place — Gavin Hartford, CEO of The Esop Shop, stated that “the conversation typically is about long lists” of what each party wants. He said South Africans have yet to have the level of conversation that the Irish had in the 1990’s where they said “above all else we are Irish” and each party was prepared to “put things in the pot.” Whereas in South Africa, he stated, “we are currently stripping down the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Charles Nupen, executive chair of Stratalign argued that “if ever we needed a Team South Africa approach it is now”. The unfortunate thing, he argued, was that public discourse around Marikana was characterised by “naming, blaming and shaming” and “until we demonstrate the leadership to pull together to have shared vision of country”, Marikana could not then be considered a turning point. It could only be a turning point, “if we can galvanise ourselves.”

NEDLAC executive director Alistair Smith stressed that Marikana was an opportunity “for us to really have a serious conversation and to accept the hard realities and choices that needed to be made. As society and leadership, we have to accept that we are not living up to promises of the democratic dream and vision that so inspired us all in 1994 and led to us setting up institutions like NEDLAC to encourage growth, equity and participation. We have to act urgently to stem the deepening inequalities in our society.”

He added that parties could build on the initiative started by the President in terms of the dialogues that took place last week. However, the hard conversation has not happened yet, and needs to involve hard discussions about trade-offs.

A number of panellists agreed that Marikana is a mirror of South Africa.

Smith said in line with the mirror analogy, “what does that mirror tell us.” The challenge for the leadership of all the social partners, he said, “is whether we resist the temptation to smash the mirror because we don’t like what we see.”

CCMA director Nerine Kahn believed that “we need to re-evaluate and relook at what is happening” and part of that required putting human resources and industrial relations back into the boardroom. She stressed that it was not necessarily about an overhaul of the system but there was an overreliance on using the courts to manage the employer-employee relationship which did not always solve the problems. “We need to start listening to what workers are saying.”

Following on from Kahn’s point, National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Frans Baleni said “there has been a brain drain in terms of industrial relations practitioners” and the new generation adopts a very legalist approach. He added that “we need to start taking bargaining seriously.” The trigger around Marikana, he said was that management by-passed the collective bargaining system and that “undermining of the bargaining process has to be a serious lesson for employers”.