AS WORKERS across South Africa’s mining areas reached salary agreements with employers and returned to work this week, things got a bit tricky when I argued with a trade union leader who told me that paying workers starvation wages is not working at all.
“This is increasing economic imbalances. It is also escalating public volatility. And it is not finding a settlement to the economic disaster we find ourselves in,” the leader said.
I believe these sentiments are spot on and deeply serious. Tackling these issues is essential. However, the way things are going at the moment means South Africa will have to get accustomed to industrial action.
This is in view of the fact that mining companies operating in South Africa seem to have the profit motive but lack the ability to improve the standard of living of their human capital. This comes last in the list of their priorities.
As this is not going to go away in a hurry, it is going to make workers steadfastly believe that strikes will remake the world they live in.
This means wildcat strikes are going to continue, even though a couple have come to an end this week.
After Lonmin workers received impressive salary increases early last month, it was announced this week that striking workers at Anglo American Platinum had agreed to a new offer.
They have reportedly accepted a R4 500 once-off payment and a pre-tax, stand-alone allowance of R600 a month.
These workers were given the option of the R600 allowance or a salary increase of R400 a month. The unions met mine management on Wednesday to formalise the agreement.
Also, workers at AngloGold Ashanti's Mponeng mine have ended their illegal strike, bringing all the firm's six operations into full production after weeks of stoppages.
Workers at the mine south of Johannesburg had staged underground sit-ins, demanding monthly wage increases to R18 500.
The strike, which began on September 25, was ended by both sides signing an agreement governing safe work and labour relations.
AngloGold Ashanti employs about 35 000 people across its South African operations and has a presence in Australia, the United States and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The message is hard to miss. We are in a new era, with workers demanding above-board salary increases and getting them. But this also means further instability is a sure thing.
We may have gradually emerged from an economic slump, but the idea that South Africa can expect to see the beginning of pre-2007 growth rates is gradually becoming fanciful.
This is because we are not undergoing a downturn but a distinct period of change. And we need to make a greater effort to understand the inference of this.
The most interesting news story of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan during his mini budget speech late last month was his take on the direction the local economy is taking.
That this was covered as a lead story by most news outlets, demonstrates the gravity of what is at stake.
Gordhan said South Africa's economy was projected to grow by 2.5% this year and the country’s gross domestic product growth would reach only 3.8% by 2014. It would grow by 3% next year.
This means the economy still has a hard slog before reaching growth rates it attained before the 2007/2008 global economic downturn.
What is at stake here is economic growth, which could slip into decline over the coming decade with halting, uneven and sometimes negative figures.
This means we could see more strikes as already tough economic conditions worsen, with workers forced to start striking.
It never rains but it pours for South Africa.