By Craig Urquhart, PANA Correspondent, Johannesburg
CAPE TOWN, July 8 — Twenty years after the birth of democracy in South Africa saw a wave of international investment which gave the country a massive boost, following years of sanctions and isolation, the ‘Rainbow Nation’ faces its darkest hour as crippling labour action by workers’ unions has left the economy battered.
The strike in the metals and engineering sectors by over 200,000 National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) members began on Tuesday, just days after a five-month platinum mining strike ended. Several smaller unions have since joined in.
NUMSA has rejected an increased wage offer and authorities have reported “serious” outbreaks of violence with striking workers running riot in several parts of the country, despite the call on employers and trade unions to work together to reach an amicable and speedy resolution.
Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa Chief Executive Officer Kaizer Nyatsumba said its members had reported cases of striking workers behaving unlawfully and he called on the police to prepare for a potentially violent strike. So far, 26 rioting strikers have been arrested – mostly in the Gauteng province.
Credit rating firm Moody’s has warned that the strike could tip the country’s credit rating into junk status.
“Continued weak investment, exports and overall growth will pose serious challenges to the government’s efforts to rein in its budget deficit and stabilise its debt metrics, a credit negative for the economically troubled country,” Moody’s said in a statement.
In another alarming development, American auto giant General Motors said last Friday it had suspended production at its main South African assembly plant in the Port Elizabeth because the strike had hit components suppliers.
In an interesting twist, the labour battle is becoming increasingly politicised as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has begun squaring off against the rebel NUMSA. Both unions are affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) umbrella body.
NUMSA is facing expulsion from COSATU for not supporting the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the recent general elections
NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni has warned of a possible split in COSATU as a result of the feud. With more than 330,000 members, NUMSA is COSATU’s biggest affiliate member and it’s expulsion would hit COSATU hard.
In another significant development, the recently-formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) political party, which finished third in the May general elections, says it has no problem working with NUMSA as both are fighting for the same cause.
While all these role-players compete for political clout, the real casualty is the South African economy, which continues to flounder despite the more favourable global economic outlook.