Mandela treads fine line as labour unrest grows

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The Independent Online
NIGHTMARES in South Africa are not what they used to be.

Visions of destruction, desolation and civil war agitated the country's more febrile minds during the run-up to the April elections but, today, images of disaster and desolation prey only on the minds of the fantasists on the far, far right.

The spectre that now haunts the land is labour unrest. More than 100,000 workers have gone on strike demanding higher wages and improved working conditions since Nelson Mandela's presidential inuguration on 10 May. In all, half a million members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) are engaged at present in labour disputes.

When he said last week that democracy should not benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, Sam Shilowa, general secretary of Cosatu, appeared to respond to a perception among some black workers that President Mandela was striving too hard to accommodate white fears.

'Workers expect to see political democracy translate into economic democracy at the workplace,' Mr Shilowa said. 'They don't just want to hold a ballot paper every five years.'

Predictably, the business community has said that if Cosatu does not ease up on its wage demands, inflation will spiral, damaging the prospects for economic recovery. Less predictably, Mr Mandela warned 10 days ago that strikes and picket violence would discourage foreign investment and undermine the Reconstruction and Development Programme, which his government has elevated to the status of No 1 national priority.

It is a view widely held in South Africa that the biggest challenge Mr Mandela will encounter during his presidency will be to find a satisfactory middle way between the demands of his disadvantaged black constituency and the imperative to encourage private-sector investment in a climate of economic and political stability. As editorial writers here have pointed out, Mr Mandela's attempt to be all things to all men will inevitably mean that some people will be upset some of the time.

Take Cosatu, for example. A certain tension having been introduced into relations between the ANC-led government and Cosatu, which deployed its considerable political muscle in the late Eighties to push for an end to minority rule, Mr Mandela called a meeting with Mr Shilowa and other labour leaders on Saturday .

At the end, both sides announced that they remained equally committed to 'economic growth and equity, healthy industrial relations and increased investment'. Mr Mandela also said that he recognised the workers' right to be 'unhappy'. But, significantly, Mr Mandela added that his government would not favour Cosatu over employers in labour disputes and that both parties should commit themselves to resolving problems without conflict.

Mr Shilowa has since made a point of easing the anxieties of the private sector, making statements to the effect that a threatened general strike in the Johannesburg area on 8 August was no longer on the cards and that many labour disputes appeared to be on the way to resolution.

But, for all the talk, 78 per cent of auto workers belonging to the Cosatu-aligned National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) voted in favour of strike action at the weekend. Yesterday Numsa said its engineering sector was also in militant mood after failure to agree on a new wage formula.

Just how seriously should the murmurings among the labour force be taken? Neil Coleman, a senior Cosatu official, said that the potential for widespread strikes should not be underestimated. 'Workers are saying you can't have business as usual in the new South Africa. They're sending a crisis signal to business, warning that they had better get their act together or there will be a much greater explosion.'

On the other hand, Mr Coleman noted that while 12 of Cosatu's 15 affiliates were currently engaged in disputes, 'the gap between what business is offering and labour is demanding is far smaller than it was in the late Eighties'. Eager to quell what he perceived as a budding hysteria in the private sector, he also said that three times more man-hours had been lost as a result of labour disputes in July 1991 than in the last month.

The view from business, however, is that South Africa's prospects of economic health are too finely balanced to allow for jitters of any kind. Eugene Nyati, an economist who acts as a consultant for a number of domestic and foreign investors, said he hoped that, if necessary, Mr Mandela would be persuaded to 'read the riot act' to the unions.

'What we're learning now is that it takes time to get over the intoxication of power and to recognise its limits,' Mr Nyati said. 'We've seen the same thing with Yeltsin in Russia, where people initially thought they could fix the economy and bring prosperity overnight. Mandela should convince Cosatu that increased wage demands can only go hand in hand with increased productivity. Otherwise the economy will fester and this could, in time, consume his presidency.'