Geopolitical & Security Insights

South Africa | Labour action to intensify in 2023


Labour activism is likely to intensify and become more disruptive in 2023, and at least until the general elections, which are scheduled for May 2024.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 20 October 2022.

The governing party in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), appears to be losing its ability to facilitate compromise and manage its trade union partners. This is because of polarisation and indecision within the party, which has in turn elevated strategic risks for businesses and accentuated drivers for labour mobilisation. We assess that this also seems to have negatively affected workers and trade union leaders, pushing up the risk of debilitating and illegal strikes.

Pressure on paychecks

The high cost of living and deteriorating economic conditions this year have driven labour mobilisation. The country already showed signs of economic decline prior to the pandemic. And this year the government in June attributed a rise in the cost of living to external factors, including the conflict in Ukraine. The precedent suggests that there is typically a higher number of strikes in the months between July and November. And since the start of ‘strike season’ this July, the inflation rate has been persistently high (7.5% as of September).  A negotiated settlement after a strike at the state-owned electricity producer, Eskom, in July, suggests unions are likely to enter protracted wage-related campaigns and strikes to match inflation.

Strikes are likely to be frequent in 2023. This is based on the pattern of strikes in recent years and predictions by multilateral bodies that the global cost of living is likely to remain high. Factors influencing this include OPEC+’s decision to cut oil production, pushing up fuel prices. In South Africa, a mixture of diminishing investor confidence and electricity shortages are signs that economic hardship is likely to continue. And we assess that with electioneering taking off in 2023 ahead of the general elections, the accompanying political point scoring means politicians are likely to favour measures offering short-term relief, which are unlikely to protect workers in the medium term from economic volatility.

There is also a high chance of illegal strikes next year, though we expect that most strikes are likely to be legal. Until now illegal strikes have often been averted in part due to the ANC’s ability to negotiate with trade union members. But many unionists (and workers) now seem to feel unrepresented by union leaders as the leadership is increasingly perceived to be in cahoots with the ANC. Unionist distrust of the official ANC alliance seems to have prompted more brazen action; in June truckers blocked a major freight route, the N3 between Durban and Johannesburg, for a day in an illegal strike. And in October a legal strike at major ports, including Cape Town and Durban showed rare intensity, causing a six-day paralysis of supply chains.

The extractives sector has typically been most affected by labour activism. But based on the intensity of strikes in critical industries this year such as public servants, electricity producers and port workers, a variety of unions are likely to be mobilised. Still, this would probably fall short of a national shutdown in which multiple sectors are simultaneously affected by strikes. In our analysis, trade union federations have shown little capacity to convene over the past year; a broad call by major union federations in August saw a few hundred participants gather in major cities. And while many trade unions remain in an ANC alliance, disruptions are likely to be somewhat mitigated.

Precedent suggests that union federation marches are typically peaceful, at most causing localised traffic disruptions in urban centres. At sector-specific strikes, however, there is at least a reasonable chance of violent confrontations between police and strikers. This is because strikers tend to gather outside places of work to intimidate those willing to work. And so pockets of striking workers have thrown stones at police or barricaded roads in the past. Prior to the pandemic, the longest strikes lasted up to ten days, predominantly in the community, manufacturing and transport industries in 2019-2020, according to a government report that year.

Opportunistic trade unions

Ahead of the general elections, trade unionists are likely to pressure the ANC-led government into wage deals in exchange for securing their votes. In recent months, trade union alliance partners have threatened to break away from the ANC; this would lead to the governing party losing a significant share of seats in parliament. And the ANC itself has struggled to manage internal divisions to secure unionist votes; jostling factions between those aligned with former president Jacob Zuma and those with President Cyril Ramaphosa have interrupted policy decision-making.

Over the coming months, the following indicators would suggest that an acute period of labour disputes is becoming imminent:

  • Persistent threats by union leadership to end the alliance with the ANC
  • The sudden removal of unionist leaders, until now aligned to Cyril Ramaphosa, in the trade union federation, COSATU
  • Unionists agree to support a faction in the ANC associated with Jacob Zuma

Despite the volatility in their relationship, we assess that unionists are unlikely to follow through on their threats to break away from ANC before the 2024 general election. This is because they still seem to view the power awarded through the ANC alliance as a useful bargaining tool for wage deals. This is even though anecdotal evidence suggests members are increasingly willing to resort to economic sabotage to demand more.

Image: Large group of people at a protest in South Africa. Photo by Louise Donald / EyeEm via Getty Images.

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