Home / Events / Violence, unions and politics: Trends and expectations in the run-up to South Africa's 2014 national election
Violence, unions and politics: Trends and expectations in the run-up to South Africa's 2014 national election
Date: 20 June 2013
Time: 10h30 - 13h00
Venue: Conference Room, ISS Pretoria

The advent of democracy in 1994 ramped up hopes that future disagreements and conflicts in South Africa would be mediated peacefully. Indeed, politically motivated violence ended and criminal violence became a pressing challenge in the country. However, recent years have seen a marked resurgence of violence associated with strikes and labour related conflicts. Notable are the spate of killings in the platinum mines in Rustenburg, seemingly associated with the collapse of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the rise of the independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Labour related violence turned deadly with the death of 34 people who died after police opened fire on 3 000 striking mine workers at the Lonmin mine in Marikana on 16 August 2012; 178 people were wounded. While labour related violence had received widespread attention it seems there may also be an increase in politically related violence resulting in killings, particularly in the KwaZulu Natal area.

In this seminar Professor Steven Friedman, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg spoke on union violence and the tensions in the tripartite alliance. He argued that the source of most South Africa’s problems lay in a racist and unequal past. While the middle class had expanded and tends to castigate the present dispensation as repressive, the irony is that it is the middle class that has benefited most from democracy. The poor on the other hand, are precluded from exercising their democratic rights because of their socio-economic circumstances and the obstacles created by local power groups. The tensions in the tripartite alliance are a normal aspect of democracy and democratic processes, such as elections, would probably continue to be practiced peacefully given the relative lack of violence when COPE challenged the ANC in the previous national elections.

Crispen Chinguno of the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand provided a sense of the union turf battles in the platinum mining belt. He argued that the violence had a long history driven by both the intra-union and inter-union conflict. Since democracy, the fragmentation in the unions, with the entrance of new players such as the breakaway AMCU, had fuelled tensions. It is important to acknowledge the dissatisfaction among workers with their living conditions and wages, issues that the NUM had failed to address. Research in the area confirmed that most saw NUM as acting primarily in the interests of mine bosses by keeping exploitative labour relations in place. Tensions between the AMCU and NUM will only subside with the subjugation of one of the unions. The weakening of the NUM, the largest Cosatu affiliated union, would probably weaken the labour federation and the tripartite alliance but would not necessarily translate into a shift in political voting patterns as AMCU was an apolitical organisation.

David Bruce, an independent researcher, provided insights into politically related killings in South Africa over the past few years particularly in KwaZulu Natal. In the 15 years since 1998 between 130 and 150 political killings occurred in South Africa. Roughly 85% of these killings have taken place in Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) and 10% in Mpumalanga.There have only been nine criminal convictions and information from these trials reveals that they happened because of local conflict over political power and access to resources. Bruce noted that the factors which explain the predominance of killings were: legacy of violence in the 1980s and 1990s including violence in taxi industry and high levels of killings by the police. KZN is one province where violence has occurred as a result of political contestation between the ANC and IFP.

In the question and answer session there was debate on whether violence would increase as the country draws closer to 2014, whether oppostion parties would chip away at ANC dominance in the elections, and on whether the unions were becoming weaker. The speakers did not think that there would be a general increase or widepsread violence as the elections drew closer or if for instance Nelson Mandela passed away although there may be particular areas where violent instances would occur. The unions would not necessarily get weaker as mine workers did not stop being involved in them but were moving from one to the other.

Related documents:

'Marikana and the post-apartheid workplace order' working paper by Crispen Chinguno

'Industrial conflict, Trade Unions and violence in the platinum mining belt' presentation by Crispen Chinguno

'Political killings in South Africa' presentation by David Bruce

Podcast interviews with the presenters

This event is made possible through funding provided by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The ISS is also grateful for the support of the following core partners: the governments of Norway, Sweden, Australia and Denmark.
Conference Room
ISS Pretoria
Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo
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