Cosatu and the South African Consultative Committee on Labour Affairs (Saccola) failed to reach agreemeent on a proposal for a one-day national shutdown, to have been mutually agreed by labour and business, in place of strike action.
Leaders of Cosatu and Saccola, which includes the giant Anglo American Corporation, had agreed on such a compromise over the weekend when, everything indicated, all that remained was the signing of a proposed charter. But last night Saccola negotiators admitted that the deal had fallen through owing to their incapacity to persuade their members to back it.
A statement from Saccola said: 'In Saccola's view the breakdown is rooted in our inability to reach agreement on a total shutdown of all sectors of the economy, including the public sector.'
Cosatu, which initiated talks with Saccola on the strike action more than a month ago, responded with a fierce denunciation of the business community. 'Saccola's failure to obtain a mandate from employers for the joint action contained in the Charter on Peace, Democracy and Economic Reconstruction comes as a major shock and disappointment to all South Africans determined to resolve the current crisis facing our country. A historic opportunity has been thrown away by employers,' it said.
The charter contained both a commitment to the one-day shutdown and to what, at the weekend, seemed to have been a set of shared political principles. These included one person, one vote and a time-frame of between six and nine months for the establishment of a body elected to draw up a democratic constitution.
The charter had proposed billing 3 August as a day of national reconciliation focusing on the need to end violence and to reconstruct South Africa's economy.
Saccola said last night that it was not these principles that had persuaded many of its members to pull out of the deal at the last moment. It was the fear, rather, that joint action on 3 August would create the perception that Saccola was shifting politically towards the African National Congress alliance, in which Cosatu is a leading force. Last night Cosatu could only reach one conclusion: 'The employers' failure to commit themselves to action on the goals contained in the draft charter can only confirm the feeling amongst the majority that many employers, while declaring themselves, as in the referendum, to be in support of democracy, are in fact supporting the government's attempts to cling on to power through various mechanisms.'
The breakdown of the agreement is certain to be welcomed by hardliners in the ANC alliance who had responded with dismay to the news on Monday that a deal had been all but signed. Amid the failure of the ANC and the government to engage in anything other than 'megaphone diplomacy' after the breakdown in the Codesa negotiations, the talks between the unions and business offered a hope that South Africa's wounds might yet heal.
Now, after three days in which more than 1,000 ANC protesters have been arrested, all sides look certain to become still more radicalised, with the danger increasing, as a senior government official warned yesterday, of 'mass action' leading to an escalation of violence.
That was the spectacle that confronted the United Nations Special Representative, Cyrus Vance, when he retired to his bed last night after a day of talks with President F W de Klerk and other cabinet ministers in Pretoria.