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31 July 2014 01:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Guy Harris

SA's downward spiral of desecration, destruction and dejection

  • Guy Harris
These are difficult words for someone who is “Proudly South African” and so positive about what we have achieved and how much promise we showed in the first 15 years of our new democracy. How can we throw so much away when we had so much going for us?

We are a teenage democracy and are showing some of the worst sides of the teenage years; petulance, tempestuousness, disregard for others, selfishness and rebellion for the sake of rebellion.

I have finally been motivated to put pen to paper by the callous murder of a work colleague on Friday morning 5 August 2011. Zenzele Nxumalo was the full-time shop steward when I was redeployed to help with a restructuring and rescuing the labour-intensive company from the brink of financial closure. We had our differences, but were able to grow and learn from each other. He taught me that to trust you must understand and he guided me to understand the living circumstances of our fellow employees and their daily stresses. The financial recovery of the company was a success because we focused on business interests knowing it would benefit employees, customers and suppliers and all their employees in the longer term.

We were able to put the pettiness of lose/lose, internally focused, confrontational negotiations behind and rather focus externally, joint problem solving, how we were going to skin the cat. To do this we needed all our team, from the chairman and the CEO to the welder and fettler, focused on how we were all going to keep our jobs or all lose them. I knew we had won when walking the shop floor during the night shift the questions were about sales in the USA and build up of finished goods in the despatch yard. Previously it would have been about demands over “tea and toilet” issues.

I have just finished reading “Truth” by Peter Harris (no relation unfortunately). It is the compelling story of our 1994 election and the various attempts to derail it. We have come so far since our tempestuous transition, yet we seem intent on throwing it all away. In the book Harris recounts the murder of Chris Hani and how close we came to anarchy. It took visionary and resolute leadership to get us to our new Constitution and the free and fair elections no one ever predicted for our new democracy. The murder circumstances are in some ways similar, a driveway shooting in the morning and a quick arrest due to prompt action by neighbours. It is too soon to understand if Zenzele’s murder was just another senseless murder for a cellphone or if it was a radical who felt he could derail a process of transformation through retribution. Unfortunately one of those arrested is apparently a work colleague and there seems to be the involvement of hired hands. The same day an article appears on Daily Maverick that the general secretary of Numsa is facing death threats.

Has the job reservation for whites, at the exclusion of blacks, been replaced by job reservation for the currently employed at the exclusion of the unemployed? It is difficult for young inexperienced newcomers with a poor basic education to make inroads. We need a new approach that gives hope and replaces a feeling of hopelessness.

The recent strikes have shown a total disregard for property, both commercial and personal, and even more worrying is the lack of police action until lives are threatened. We have seen productive assets torched. But there is an expectation of being able to return to work after the settlement. Even if one does not have the perception that the current and proposed labour laws are too rigid and favour the recalcitrant employee, would any employer go out and hire rather than mechanise, outsource and downsize? This at a time when the country needs every job it can retain or create.

If people feel there is no way of reasonably safeguarding their assets they will move those assets, and themselves, to locations where they are more likely to be safe and appropriately secure. Once the assets move, the owners and entrepreneurs will follow, as will their financial and intellectual capital. It is no use saying all the items are insured as the insurers pass the costs of higher risk on and it adds to the cost of doing business.

There is increasing talk of an “Economic Codesa”, but will it not result in an extended talk shop with business and labour continuing to talk past each other?  We need to learn from Zenzele and develop a real understanding of the views and aspirations of both business and labour and both current and future potential businesses and labour. We need to ensure the unemployed, underemployed and discouraged work-seekers are fully represented. We need some visionary leadership from labour and business and support from government and civil society if we are to walk away from this new abyss.

I can do no better than quote back to Zenzele his words in a letter to me in 2001: “Finally I am saying we will remember you for all what you have done for us. You were truly a team mate and friend. Do hope you find other friends where you are going.” How will strike season 2011 be remembered? Will it be the tipping point when we reached the bottom of the abyss and started helping each other out? Let’s hope it is not the year the downward spiral to total unsustainability picked up speed. We dare not leave the choice to government or labour; business needs to say “so far and no further” and come up with a workable plan that it can sell to the unemployed, government and rational unions. DM

  • Guy Harris
guy harris

Guy Harris was involved in the 1994 elections as a business observer in KZN. Since then he has also participated in many of the tripartite structures focusing on trade and industry.


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