Business Maverick


South Africa’s ‘oxymoronic’ national stayaway has very little going for it

South Africa’s ‘oxymoronic’ national stayaway has very little going for it
Members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) take part in a mass strike on 7 October 2020 in Germiston, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

A funny thing about oxymorons is that the word ‘oxymoron’ is itself an oxymoron. It is derived from the Greek words ‘oxys’, which means sharp, and ‘moronos’, which means dull. What’s more, some of them are seriously funny.

Oxymorons are now so much a part of our lives that we barely notice them. Think of “civil war” or “paper towel”, or “crash landing” or “deafening silence”. One you often see in the business press is “negative growth”, which is a polite way of saying that this is a positive shitstorm.

The same applies to phrases, like “fighting for peace”, although the phrase is so self-consciously oxymoronic that we do get the joke. Comedian George Carlin once famously said that “fighting for peace is like making love for virginity”.

To all of these, one must add something very specific to South Africa: “striking for jobs” – and this one is seriously not funny. It’s my unbiased opinion that striking for jobs is true fiction. Whenever the SA labour movement calls on the SA labour force to strike for jobs, I tend to let out a silent scream.

Tomorrow, the trade union movements have called for a day-long “general strike”, although, of course, this too is an oxymoron: it’s neither a strike and nor is it general. Participants are invariably those who have no real choice in the matter, because if transport routes break down, then the work stayaway works. 

One of the questions never really answered is, how much this costs society. Some estimates are provided sometimes, but I wonder about their veracity. So I thought, why not try to calculate it myself? How would one do that?

Actually, it’s not very difficult to at least get an “exact estimate”. There are two essential losses applicable here: the wages the workforce lose by not going to work – because now almost all employers impose a “no work, no pay” policy – and the lost corporate profits these stayaways engender. 

Let’s take two companies you could say are proxies for the SA workforce – one representing higher-paid workers and one representing lower-paid workers: Standard Bank and Shoprite. You will see why in a bit.

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Standard Bank has 54,000 employees and the average salary is about R810,000 a year. The company made about R24-billion in profit last year. So if you work on 260 working days a year, that works out at a profit of R1,700 per employee per day, and an average wage of about R3,000 per employee per day. Shoprite, on the other hand, earned about R10-billion last year and has 145000 employees: its profit per working day was about R265, and employees earned about R1,000 on average per working day.

If you average those out, you get a snapshot of the SA formal sector, in which companies earn about R900 per day per employee on average, and employees earn about R2,000 per day. That looks anomalous since employees are earning more than companies make, but it does make sense because we are talking profit here, not turnover. 

My guess is that both figures are a bit high, but let’s stick with them for now. Neither am I taking tax into consideration here, deliberately, because we are talking about losses to the country, not to individuals. We should note, government also loses in a general stay-away.

In any event, if we multiply those average figures by the working population, which is 15.6 million people, a single day off work for everyone costs the country R15.4-billion in lost profits, and R32-billion in lost wages – a total of R47.4-billion. These numbers are, to stay with our oxymoronic theme, pretty ugly.

Of course, it’s not as bad as that. Work can be caught up, although lost wages cannot. But let’s assume that at least a third of the population doesn’t take part in the strike, and that by working a little harder or longer, the dent in profits is smaller than a straight calculation would imply. So chop off two-thirds of that number.

Even doing so, the total cost to the country of a one-day strike is R16-billion by my calculation (and, by all means, let me know if you think it’s wrong). And this doesn’t take into account what happens to business confidence, workplace morale, investment and entrepreneurship, all of which get hit to a certain degree.

And what will the stayaway achieve? Actually, we know very precisely what it will achieve: nothing. We know this because, in a fit of honesty, one of the strike organisers, Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, said so very specifically. “It will achieve absolutely nothing,” he said. It’s just the start of the process of mobilising the working class, he said.

I appreciate, of course, that people in SA are gatvol and that unemployment is high (though today’s numbers were a surprise on the upside), and that the cost of living has increased. I know people struggle to feel as though their voices are heard. It’s tough out there. But I have to ask: Is this really the way to fix SA’s many problems? 

It’s destructive, pointless by definition, and the goals the movement is pressing for are surefire, absolutely guaranteed, ways of making things worse. 

R16-billion seems a lot to pay to achieve nothing, and that’s not oxymoronic – it’s just plain moronic. BM/DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Nice article. The strike also draws attention to the ridiculous demands of a hugely privileged group, something which just alienates the rest of society from their so-called cause. In the end, everyone knows that the government will settle on a number way higher that it should.

    After all, that’s how it got into this mess in the first place.

  • Marc van Olst says:

    And if they succeed in getting themselves a 20% raise to be able to cover the higher costs of household goods then R6bn of the R47bn moves from company profit to individual earnings reducing the company profit by 40%. This will mean 40% less for investment into company growth/sustainability. This movie doesn’t fast forward well

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    In contrast, what would benefit us, is if the whole ANC government from the president all the way down, went on strike for one day, without wages and without stealing, the country would save countless billions.

  • Trevor Sacks says:

    This article is simply unhistorical and shortsighted. Virtually every major progressive move in history, from the 8 hour work day to 2 day weekends to equality in the workplace, have been achieved through mass action. Vavi’s comment simply acknowledges that this is one of many actions required. Unemployment is not going to be served by Not striking – it requires this kind of pressure on government to change its policies.

    • Carsten Rasch says:

      Are the unions not in government?

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      It requires the victims of poverty to choose an all around, better performing government that is self motivated. I believe its called democracy. If its broken beyond repair, don’t try to fix it. Rather replace it with something new, functional and reliable. No need for roadblocks to cripple the already ailing economy.

    • Andrew P says:

      Perhaps in his next piece the author could provide some calculations demonstrating how much better-off workers would be if forced to work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.

  • David A says:

    Cutting off your head to spite your body…

  • Coenie Harley says:

    On point Tim. High time a spotlight shines on these union activities. They usually gets a “mandate” from workers to disadvantage the same workers. How moronic is that?
    I think it will also be very interesting to see what these union bosses earn while the workers are not paid during the stay away actions?

    • Robert Mitchell says:

      Is there any way to see how much cash the union sits on. I bet its billions! Pray tell, what do the contributors /workers get out of it?

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The figures presented focuses only on the participants, the workers and the corporate sector, based on a ‘successful strike’ (another oxymoron). But what if the strikers are not controlled properly – this happens more often than not – and the strike turns into a riot. Or they simply block a road for an hour, and thousands of people lose an hours worth of productivity. The cost of striking is high, but the unions don’t feel it.

  • Gerhardt Strydom says:

    Trevor Sachs, let us accept that there is some merit (and correctness) in your postulation which seems to be about the advantages of striking and the achievements thereof … Then there would be other debates worth debating … such as “How much business profit is acceptable … and how much remuneration is to go to the workforce, bearing in mind that no amount will ever be enough.” and:
    “Why don’t we just nationalize everything so that productivity and enterprise can receive the bullet through the head, perhaps that would be pleasing and satisfying to many? … before they realise that wealth can only be attained by earning it, not demanding it or taking it forcefully.” Let us not become another Zimbabwe, dear father, by your grace.

  • Confucious Says says:

    A strike is an insult to the unemployed! And if you can strike, it means that you are earning too much anyway (because you can afford not to work)! Striking for giant wage increases because prices are too high, because input costs have risen, because wages are too high… It’s one thing paying increases in wages, but when increases in costs do not match increases in efficiency, then its straight to inflation!

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