MEDIA STATEMENT BY THE
INKATHA FREEDOM PARTY
Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
"You can't negotiate by the barrel of a gun. A conducive environment needs to be created for progressive talks," health worker Noluthando Mayende Sibiya told BBC's network Africa programme.
One of South Africa's biggest strikes ever is receiving widespread international coverage as the impact of as many as two million striking public servants is felt by all South Africans. We are, after all, a player in the global economy. Domestic disputes are no longer merely domestic. We have to learn to see the bigger picture.
Raising wage demands and inflation are closely monitored by international bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank. Strikes, irrespective of their legitimacy, always have a negative impact upon any nation's reputation for economic stability. The spectre of violence - of teachers harming pupils' examination prospects and patients dying in hospitals - can only tarnish South Africa's image. Add this to the widespread perception of our violent past and a picture of a fraught, unstable society emerges.
Yesterday, the South African strikers came to protest outside parliament. We could hear them. The locked gates starkly symbolised the stalemate between the unions and government. As I write, the strikers are still waiting for a satisfactory response to their demands.
Many commentators at home and abroad perceive the strike as shadow boxing within the tripartite alliance ahead of the 2009 elections. The question being aptly asked is: "Who governs South Africa?" Is it President Thabo Mbeki or the arrayed forces of Cosatu, the SACP and leftist supporters? Cosatu General Secretary, Mr Zwelinzima Vavi dismissed yesterday opposition political parties' claims that the strike was part of political battles within the ANC-led tripartite alliance. Mr Vavi is much too savvy to believe this. Public service strikes always have a political fuse.
Strikes are notorious for transforming the political landscape and the fortunes of governments. Look at Europe in the late 1970's.
When British Prime Minister Edward Heath asked in the 1974 General Election "Who governs Britain?" The electorate, after crippling strikes which paralysed the country, famously replied "Not you Ted". A few years later the Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan even told the trade unions "We are prostrate before you". The three-day week, mountains of refuse and the unburied dead buried his government a few months after in the famous Winter of Discontent.
It took the enterprising reforms of his successor, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to reverse the situation. The key to Britain's unprecedented economic growth in the 1980s was sparked by a series of painful labour-market reforms, namely, the restrictions on the closed shop and the scope of industrial bargaining. Many other European nations, including Holland and Portugal, have gone through similar travails to boost their competitiveness in the global markets.
President Mbeki, a keen historian, I am sure, will recall this.
In fact, when I was a cabinet minister, the cabinet decided to make our rigid labour laws a little more flexible. Cosatu threatened rolling mass action if we proceeded and that was end of that initiative.
Yet one cannot but feel sympathy for both parties in this dispute. Clearly many public servants, the majority of whom deliver extraordinary services with sparse resources, feel that not enough is being done to raise living standards for the poor. Nor do nurses and teachers, in particular, receive remuneration remotely linked to their occupations. They deserve our compassion.
In parliament this week, I emphasised that both civil servants and government are acting within their human rights prescribed by the constitution. I, however, warned that whilst the grievances of the civil servants need to be addressed, we must at the same time be careful not to undermine economic stability. If that happened, I said, the result would be to kill the goose which lays the golden egg. I added that we were praying for a meeting of minds around a figure requested by independent economists.
But our hearts really go out to the victims of this strike. We are most concerned about the patients in public hospitals, many of them terminally ill and vulnerable, who have become victims in, what they must see as a dubious bid by the strikers to impress the public and intimidate the authorities. Similarly, our thoughts are with the pupils in public schools whose examinations at such a crucial time in their schooling have been interrupted by the striking teachers.
I must also ask if, in an apparent expression of solidarity, striking taxi drivers in Durban, for example, are really helping the situation. Considering they are depriving themselves of their profit, what is their gain?
But how does the strike fit into the bigger picture? President Mbeki's government has, with varying results, created a virtuous economic climate characterised by low inflation, responsible public borrowing and steady growth. From an economist's viewpoint, the government's proposed 7.5% wage increase is the most that the country can afford without compromising economic stability.
In order to respond to the strikers' demands adequately, we need to ask how we can really improve and strengthen public sector relations within the country. The objective of our public sector relations should be to bring the forces producing conflict towards constructive ends. The right to strike must be balanced carefully with the rights of public sector clients - the people. The only sustainable way to raise wages is to improve our productivity and maintain competitiveness.
In order to justify the salaries our public servants demand, the government must now focus its attention on the ways to increase the productivity in the public sector. The emphasis must lie on comprehensive training schemes as well as improving working conditions. There are no shortcuts, as many trade union officials and politicians have discovered before and will, no doubt, discover in the future clashes over salary increases.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP