Strikes 'a democratic right'

2010-06-17 19:27

Johannesburg - Asked before the World Cup what he would do about strikes, the tournament's chief organiser Danny Jordaan was emphatic: "Nothing. Strikes in this country are a hard-won democratic right."

To its foreign visitors, the industrial unrest that has dogged stewarding and transport at South Africa's hosting of the football World Cup may appear an embarrassment.

But to many South Africans, it demonstrates a break with the past tradition of a master-servant relationship that endured during the apartheid era.

Ever since the first democratic government came to power in 1994, the main Cosatu labour federation has been one of the pillars of a tripartite alliance.

The trade union movement was at the vanguard of the struggle against white supremacist rule and many of its leading lights went on to become key players in the new South Africa - not least Jordaan, a former student leader who became a lawmaker before becoming involved in the politics of football.

Respect for workers' rights

At a FIFA press conference this week, a Chinese journalist made the point that workers who protested during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing would have been arrested.

But organisers know that such an approach simply would not work in South Africa, given both its history and the attitude of many within government.

During a pre-World Cup road show in March, Jordaan told a questioner not only that his committee would not try to halt strikes but also pointed out that "we had strikes during the stadium construction and we didn't try to stop them."

As the dispute over stewards' pay spread earlier this week, Jordaan's tune had changed somewhat as he called the disruption of match-day proceedings "unacceptable".

But he still laced his comments by stressing his "respect for workers' rights".

According to Patrick Craven, a veteran Cosatu official, the idea of a strike during the tournament should not be thought of as an embarrassment but rather as a sign of progress in a fledgling democracy.

"Most people write about this as if it brings discredit to South Africa but a strike - provided it is justified, it's for a good reason - shows we are a constitutional democracy where rights are respected," Craven told AFP.

One of the most powerful weapons of the anti-apartheid movement was the withdrawal of labour, with strikes by the National Union of Mineworkers seen as a key factor in bringing the regime to the negotiating table.

The NUM's former secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe is now the country's deputy president and the government has been largely silent about the strikes despite announcing an agreement on the eve of the tournament that unions would not down tools during the World Cup.

Union influence in government

Dirk Kotze, an analyst at the University of Pretoria, said that the union influence in the government is part of the reason for the government's stance.

"Cosatu is a very strong component of the governing alliance," he told AFP.

"If the government tried to prevent (the strikes), it would certainly be criticised by Cosatu.

"Our labour legislation is quite well developed. If the unions took them to the labour court and the constitutional court, the government may well lose."

During the programme of stadium construction, a series of strikes halted building work - sometimes for weeks at a time.

Whatever frustrations he may have felt, FIFA president Sepp Blatter was advised against applying the stick approach to workers and they were instead given the carrot of tickets to matches to complete the job on time.

"I told them that they are the real workers, stone by stone," said Blatter when he visited Durban's Moses Mabhida stadium after a halt to work there.

Craven regarded the current media interest in industrial unrest with a degree of scepticism, saying labour protests were a fact of everyday life in modern South Africa.

"It's purely because they have happened during the World Cup they have become an issue," he said, denying that the law was unduly tilted towards the right to strike.

"The laws in this country were based on a consensus - between government, business and labour."