South Africa


Unions, disunited: Violent strikes, inner discord and tough underlying conditions signal more trouble ahead

Unions, disunited: Violent strikes, inner discord and tough underlying conditions signal more trouble ahead
Nehawu members protest outside Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital on 9 March 2023 in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

Nehawu’s actions last week, in which union members blocked the entrances to hospitals, are a consequence of difficult economic conditions – as well as a lack of proper leadership within unions. The really bad news? These volatile realities are likely to only intensify.

The strike by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), and its violence, may well be creating a difficult situation for other unions, particularly the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). 

Nehawu, a Cosatu-affiliated member, also disrupted an event attended by another affiliated member, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), last week.

There are also indications that South Africa’s union movement is facing upheaval, with the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) appearing to be trying to remove Zwelinzima Vavi as general secretary of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), a rival of Cosatu.

As though the country has not had enough trouble of late. We may not only be about to enter a new period of turbulence in the union movement, but it’s likely we’ll see more difficult scenes involving increasingly violent strikes and conflicts.

Much of the nation was shocked by reports of union members preventing people from entering hospitals last week. Videos of doctors trying to access hospitals, images of a Nehawu member carrying a sjambok, of empty wards and looted kitchens, were disturbing.

Union leaders claimed to not be aware of blockages. They even said that if patients were prevented from getting their treatment, it was the work of “saboteurs”.

That is a familiar disclaimer from union leaders. For many years, strikes have been accompanied by violence that is a direct consequence of their strike actions. One follows the other. The violence is the direct result of the actions of members of the striking union.

But then came another unprecedented event: Sadtu, the teachers’ union, said its members were in the middle of a workshop hosted by a higher education institution in East London when the event was disrupted by Nehawu members.

Sadtu said Nehawu members demanded that their members join the strike.

It is clear that Sadtu is livid. Its general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said these were the actions of an “opponent” and that Sadtu would now treat Nehawu as such. It was no longer a “sister union”.

That is perhaps the strongest language ever seen between unions that both belong to Cosatu. And it is likely there are many households where one partner belongs to Sadtu, and the other to Nehawu.


The roots of this discord may well lie in Sadtu’s 2022 decision to accept a wage increase of just 3%, whereas other Cosatu unions refused to accept it.

Even before this event, and Maluleke’s comments, there were signs that Cosatu’s support of Nehawu’s strike was half-hearted. While backing the principle that workers need to be paid more, and that the government was partially responsible for the high temperatures, there were no Cosatu leaders on the picket lines.

In public, Cosatu repeatedly said it condemned the violence, and called on union members to obey the law.

Although no other Cosatu affiliates have spoken in public on the strike, it is possible that some may be worried that the violence, and the strikers’ attitude, may be weakening the entire union movement. They, too, may be shocked by what they saw, and they are certainly likely to ask questions about Nehawu’s actions with regard to Sadtu.

This puts Cosatu in a difficult position. Nehawu is its biggest affiliate. It has said it wants to leave the tripartite alliance, and for Cosatu to no longer support the ANC in elections.

But other large unions have a different view. They worry that they may lose influence in the government, and that there is no better party to support.

The actions of Nehawu’s members may well put more pressure on these divisions, and lead to members of other unions expressing displeasure with Nehawu’s lack of restraint.

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The problems at the root of it all

It must also be noted that the union movement as a whole has lost significant support over the past few years. Since Numsa was expelled from Cosatu, the federation has simply not been the old familiar force in our society.

It may well be these dynamics that have allowed the government to treat workers in the way it has, and to implement a pay increase of just 3% last year.

The real problems, however, are those causing so much pain in our society.

Food price inflation has now been painfully high for some time, and workers, and the people they support, are running out of money. The level of desperation they face is terrifying, and their quality of life has declined dramatically.

At the same time, it is clear that the government cannot afford to even pay increases matching inflation. For various reasons, the Constitutional Court has, in its last finding on the matter, agreed with the government.

This leaves unions and their members with no other option but to go on strike.

At the same time, the declining membership of unions gives leaders an incentive to demand more. As has been noticed many times in the past, a union can use a list of demands to advertise for members.

This leads to a toxic cocktail of factors that can create fertile ground for more strikes, and more scenes like we saw last week.

Unfortunately, none of these factors is likely to disappear any time soon as most predictions suggest that inflation, while having peaked, is likely to stay high for some time – and government revenues are unlikely to increase to the point where workers can receive big increases. This is despite the SA Revenue Service’s significant success with raising the tax take through increased tax compliance.


There is a much bigger problem: as people feel poorer, they feel they have more to lose from giving up any demand. Thus they fight harder. And the feelings of desperation are made all that much worse by the growing inequality and the sheer misery created by intense load shedding.

Although Cosatu may find it has to deal with more divisions as a result of the strike and the question of backing the ANC, Saftu, the second-biggest union federation, may also be about to go through more turbulence.

A Business Day report last week quoted a letter from Numsa General Secretary Irwin Jim, stating that they wished to recall Zwelinzima Vavi from his position as general secretary of Saftu.

It is not clear that Numsa has the power to do this, and it is likely that Vavi will fight back. Because of his high public profile he may find strong support in this, but the fact that it is the biggest affiliate of Saftu (which played a leading role in its creation) means it has huge influence.

It seems unlikely that Saftu can really play an active role for workers – and in our politics – until this is resolved.

All of this points to a grim outlook. The strike is a direct result of the difficult economic conditions on the ground, and a lack of proper leadership within unions. The conditions that led to last week’s violence are likely to only intensify. 

Looking at both sides of the issue, more trouble ahead appears to be a safe bet. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    We are no longer a democracy, but a feudal oligarchy, and this what happens when the leadership becomes invisible. The fiefdoms start flexing.

  • virginia crawford says:

    It would be cheaper to remove sales tax from essential food stuffs and start subsidised food co-operatives. The tripartite alliance is profoundly undemocratic: no one voted for COSATU or the SACP and yet they wield enormous power. Most of the unions use violence and intimidation during strikes, and genetslly operate like corrupt businesses, so it’s no wonder that they will never enjoy the support they had in the 80s, either from workers or the public.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    these unions should learn to behave and honour their membership and their reason for existence. leaders always claim it was/is someone else causing the problem whilst they run around in the their flashy cars and clothes. they are now a disgrace to the country and punishment must follow for their behaviour and for deaths caused

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    Gratuitous violence against people who are already on their knees, has nothing to do with striking, not to talk about vandalism. All the damages should be paid by the Union in question. Mobs under no control are dangerous as we have seen far too often. It is easy that someone gets killed.

  • Gordon Bentley says:

    I reiterate: Let’s do away with Unions and set up a credible system for mediation.

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