By: Norah Msuya
Political protests can be devastating since they can cause economic setbacks and the loss of life. Protests in South Africa are no longer increasing in frequency alone, but are increasingly turning violent. South Africa has experienced many protests and as a result, the country has been referred to as “the protest capital of the world.” Federations of trade unions such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have over the years organised a number of protests, including those against labour broking and high tolls. Protests are used for various reasons, including those related to service delivery. Such a form of protests is associated with mass movement, intended to cause a total shutdown of economic activities and often results in coercion, violence, and damage to both public and private properties. The unemployment and poverty levels in the country brewed frustrations which culminated in aggressive behaviour that adversely affected businesses. The protests aggravated the already ailing economies when disrupting business transactions. These protest are mostly fuel by the populist political rhetoric in the country. There are plenty of long term effects on economic development emanating from these protests. The effects will never easy to recover.
Legal Framework for Labour Protests in South Africa
Since, the 1980s and 1990s, protest actions became increasingly popular among workers in democratic South Africa who used stay-aways to express their opposition to government policies. However, these actions were not protected under the Labour Relations Act 28 of 1956 and were therefore considered unlawful by the Industrial Court. On the other hand, the 1956 LRA regulated and defined strike action. The International Labour Organisation’s Fact-Finding and Conciliation Commission on Freedom of Association criticized the narrow definition of “strike” in the 1956 LRA, arguing that employees should be allowed to strike against the government’s economic and social policies.
Under the current democratic dispensation, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, clearly outlines the right to peacefully and unarmed assembly, demonstration, picketing, and petitioning under section 17, and the right to strike for employees under section 23(2)(c). The term “assemble” in section 17 has been interpreted to include meetings, pickets, protest marches, and demonstrations aimed at expressing a common opinion. Based on these constitutional provisions, employees can use their economic power to support their various demands. The Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 aims to promote economic development, social justice, labor peace, and the democratization of the workplace. One of the ways it does this is by allowing employees and their organizations the right to engage in protest action.
According to Section 213 of the LRA, strikes are focused on “matters of mutual interest” between employees and their employer, while protest actions are focused on the “socio-economic interests” of employees. Protest actions allow employees, their trade unions, and federations to play a broader role in society by influencing policy decisions.
Protest action is not a new phenomenon in democratic South Africa.1980s and 1990s, many stay-aways were used by workers to demonstrate opposition to government policy However, the Industrial Court was disinclined to grant such actions protection and, as a result, they were deemed unlawful under the Labour Relations Act 28 of 1956 Unlike protest action, strike action was regulated and defined under the 1956 LRA. Nonetheless, the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Fact-Finding and Conciliation Commission on Freedom of Association criticised the narrow definition of “strike” in the 1956 LRA, stating that employees should be permitted to strike in protest against the government’s economic and social policies.
Under the democratic dispensation, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 clearly provides that everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions (s 17) and that employees have the right to strike (s 23(2)(c)). The term “assemble” in section 17 of the Constitution has been interpreted to cover meetings, pickets, protest marches and demonstrations that are aimed at expressing a common opinion. Based on these constitutional provisions, employees can therefore use economic power to support their various demands.
Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 also aim “to advance economic development, social justice, labour peace and the democratization of the workplace”. Among other measures, this is done through allowing employees and their organisations the right to engage in protest action. According to Section 213 of Labour Relations Act, strike is focused on “matters of mutual interest” between employees and their employer, protest action is focused on the “socio-economic interests” of employees. Protest action assists employees, their trade unions and federations to play an important wider role in society. Through protest action, employees can influence policy decisions in society.
In a democratic country like South Africa, the right to protest is crucial. However, frequent protests can have adverse effects on the economy and result in job losses, which are the main sources of income for many families. Violent and prolonged protests can harm various sectors of the economy, leading to poverty as a consequence. Therefore, it is necessary to address the issue of numerous and violent protests by introducing interest arbitration. Interest arbitration can compel parties to resolve their issues and empower the Labour Court to intervene and suspend the strike or picket. In Australia, the Fair Works Commission has the power to terminate industrial action if prolonged strikes are seen to negatively impact the economy. By including interest arbitration in the Labour Relations Act (LRA), affected parties can easily approach the Labour Court to suspend violent industrial action. This approach can prevent businesses from suffering financial losses, which may lead to job losses or retrenchments. If interest arbitration becomes a law in South Africa, it will have more advantages for strikes than what currently exists.
Does Populist Political Rhetoric in SA Fuel the Public’s fears?
On the flip side, populism carries a negative connotation and is generally associated with behavior that is not in line with traditional political norms. Populist movements lack objective and systematic analysis of well-defined political phenomena, and instead view politics as a battle between the good people and evil elites, with the primary goal being to represent the popular will, which is often poorly constructed. Studies have shown that populism is popular among South African political parties, with the EFF being particularly extreme in its use of populist rhetoric. However, the ANC and Democratic Alliance (DA) use less populist language. Despite the prevalence of populist rhetoric in South African politics, it does not appear to have a significant impact on the country’s economy. Instead, populist and government actors engage in fear-anger contests, with populists tending to express more anger and government actors expressing more fear. Populist politicians and their parties arouse popular sentiment against established elites by presenting themselves as champions of the people and accusing the elites of betraying the people’s interests. This often leads to the expression of anger by populists, while the news media and citizens tend to either align themselves with the government’s politics of fear or the populist’s politics of anger, which can have consequences for political outcomes.
However, the protests in South Africa revealed a distinct sense of frustration among the participants. This frustration primarily stems from a perception of injustice and moral indignation resulting from being wronged. Frustration involves a cognitive process that helps identify the perpetrator responsible for an alleged injustice. The feeling of injustice often arises from the realization that the government is perpetuating inequality by unjustly denying qualified individuals access to job opportunities. Grievances of this nature are commonly caused by nepotism and corruption. When the government unjustifiably denies citizens their entitlements, it is equivalent to committing an act of injustice. It’s important to note that the perception of injustice does not solely arise from the government’s failure to generate job opportunities, but rather from the assignment of blame for the perceived injustice and deprivation. When individuals believe they are entitled to jobs but are unjustly prevented from accessing them due to corruption, nepotism, or other factors, they experience a sense of injustice. In this context, injustice implies that there is an identifiable agent responsible for the hardships, losses, and suffering encountered or experienced. Therefore, it would be an overstatement to claim that all citizens participate in protests solely due to a perception of injustice caused by populist political rhetoric.
The Effect of Labour Protests on Economic Growth
It is believed that if the economy of a country is stable, the lives of the people improve with available resources being shared among the country’s inhabitants or citizens. However, it becomes difficult when the growth of the economy is hampered by the exercise of one or more of the constitutionally entrenched rights such as the right to protest. This affects businesses, employees and their families, and eventually, the economy. It becomes more dangerous for the economy and society at large if protest are accompanied by violence causing damage to property and injury to people. The duration of protest poses a problem for the economy of a developing country like South Africa. Protests are disastrous and costly because they resulted in the destruction of property, interruption of business chain and activities, injuries and loss of life. Social protests are more catastrophic when misunderstood and misdiagnosed, as the issue in question may not be promptly addressed. The culture of protesting should be addressed to end violent and destructive protests.
Dr. Norah Msuya is an academician and writes in her personal capacity.