Ndabezinhle Sibiya: We need to draw lessons from previous strikes to see the light

It is vital that the Eskom wage dispute is resolved. Prolonged load shedding, which will dent business confidence and slow economic growth, has to be avoided.

A few minutes before the first whistle marking the beginning of World Cup 2018, both social media and soccer enthusiasts complained about unreliable power supply throughout the tournament. This after Eskom had released a list of areas to be affected by load shedding.

The inability to keep the lights on is a result of a strike by workers who are members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

The inability to keep the lights on as a result of a strike by workers who are members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

Last week workers had been demanding a 15% wage hike with Eskom, on the other hand, offering a 0% increase for this year. There is now light at the end of the tunnel following an announcement that organised labour and Eskom are discussing a new wage deal.

This is the most critical period for the ANC government led by President Cyril Ramaphosa. My greatest wish is for diplomacy and bargaining skills that resulted in public sector unions and the government reaching a wage settlement, to characterise negotiations at Eskom in order to find a lasting solution.

Public Service and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo, her team of senior officials and leaders of organised labour in the public sector must be commended for ensuring that the country avoids what could have been a crippling strike involving thousands of government employees. This is one of the most important achievements under Ramaphosa.

I recall that in August and September 2010, ordinary members of society were faced with a massive public sector strike which had a severe impact on health, education, welfare and other services. This strike was associated with unprecedented violence, arising from a deadlock in the negotiations process.

The ANC-led government must be commended for drawing some good lessons from the 2010 strike. Negotiations that resulted in the latest settlement started six months ago under then-president Jacob Zuma and were led by then-minister Faith Muthambi and her team.

The government has been decisive and acted very early to resolve salary disputes. It did not delay until the emotions boiled to higher levels especially since the bargaining schedule is known ahead of time.

Leaders of organised labour must be also commended for their bargaining skills. They must be encouraged to always give firm and effective leadership to avoid anarchy and hooliganism that discredits an otherwise justifiable case of bargaining. Unruly behaviour and sporadic strikes while negotiations are under way reverse the gains the ANC and the alliance partners have made in building a labour-friendly environment.

In 2012, this country experienced a tragedy which attracted the attention of international labour organisations. The lessons that we all need to draw from Marikana is that government, mining companies and labour unions must work together to ensure that miners are rewarded appropriately for their labour.

All role-players must also ensure that communities benefit from the wealth underneath the land of their birth.

Critically, there is a need for government and organised labour to ensure that no negotiations are conducted through the use of pangas and spears. This must apply to all sectors of our economy even at Eskom.

More debate is necessary to restore a sense of decency in industrial negotiation processes as guided by the law of the land. The increasing violence and intimidation associated with industrial action should be a cause for huge concern.

It cannot be allowed as a culture of wage negotiations that several lives are lost and assets are destroyed for every percentage rise to be gained at the bargaining table.

As a country, we seem to have descended to accepting that there may be circumstances under which such deaths may be justifiable. This trend of unpredictable violent work stoppages is most frightening to investors who need stability and predictable environment to match the long-term decisions they make in investing in any country.

It must be stated upfront that the ANC voted in Parliament after 1994 for labour legislation that protects the workers' right to sell their labour and bargain for the best possible conditions of employment including a decent salary.

The Freedom Charter must continue to guide all role-players on what type of environment the democratic government should create for workers under the new dispensation. Better living and working conditions for workers are not favours but a constitutional right which the democratic government led by the ANC has to uphold at all times.

Importantly, it should be remembered that the ANC has its constituency base in the working class and the rural poor. These are the most important categories of the people who are part of the important motive forces that stand to benefit from the process of transforming society that the ANC and its allies are leading.

Over the next few days, everything must be done to resolve the Eskom strike and ensure that workers get what they deserve. This will ensure that we avoid prolonged load-shedding which will dent business confidence and slow the pace of economic growth.

KwaZulu-Natal, being one of the economic and industrialised hubs of South Africa would be greatly affected. This province consumes in excess of 6,700MW of electricity or almost two Eskom six-pack power stations in its peak demand period.

Average growth in electricity demand, which closely tags economic growth rates, is predicted to be between 6 and 7%. This implies that KZN requires 470MW more electricity each year to achieve and sustain its growth targets.

The interruption to the power supply will not only derail efforts aimed at growing the economy of this province but will reverse all gains that have been made in the provision of electricity to millions of ordinary people who were denied access to it by the evil apartheid government.

In conclusion, I respectfully wish that we will collectively draw lessons from the previous strikes in order to chart the way forward. A bad experience can deliver a better lesson than a good teacher but only if the student is prepared to learn. DM

Ndabezinhle Sibiya is the Head of Content and Knowledge Management in KZN Provincial Government Communications. He is former spokesman for former premiers Zweli Mkhize, Senzo Mchunu and Premier Willies Mchunu. He writes in his personal capacity.