The President’s statement was challenged by political analyst and Indaba panellist Professor Steven Friedman, who argued that if employers and trade unions saw each other as partners, there would not be a need for bargaining councils, which currently play a major role in South Africa’s labour relations.

Pointing to the opposing interests of employers and employees, Professor Friedman said wage negotiations are often a lifeline for the few working individuals who care for their unemployed relatives.

“Pre-1994 negotiations resulted in political inclusion for South Africa’s black majority. However, economic exclusion still continues, rendering collective bargaining difficult,” he said.

Supporting this view was Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council General Secretary Thulani Mthiyane, who said black workers were historically seen as enemies not only by the apartheid government, but also corporate South Africa, as were the trade union agents who represented them.

“Unfortunately, this hostile relationship between business and trade unions still exists,” Mr Mthiyane said.

Solidarity General Secretary Gideon du Plessis weighed in with a similar view, accusing employers of viewing workers as commodities.

“This is why we will continue to see labour unrest and violent strikes in South Africa. Instead of collective bargaining, we have a situation of winner takes all,” Mr Du Plessis said, arguing that this had led to a fall in investor confidence.

To defuse the tension, Professor Friedman’s proposal for a solution came as a surprise to the delegates who filled up the IDC’s Conference Centre in Sandton.

“What we need is a crisis!

“Saying we need a crisis seems strange. It becomes less odd if we remember what ‘crisis’ originally meant. Today it is often used to talk about calamities. But originally it referred to a turning point. In the early 1990s, there was a real sense of crisis in South Africa. Everyone believed we needed to change course, and that led to the adoption of a new constitution. We need to accept now again that we have a crisis. We need to accept that the current path (of labour relations) needs to change,” Professor Friedman said.

Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (SEIFA) Operations Director Lucio Trentini, echoed this sentiment, saying labour cannot exist without business, business cannot exist without labour and Government cannot exist without either.

“Government, business and labour are indispensable partners that cannot do without one another. We all share a vested interest in the growth and competitiveness of the local economy in order to preserve jobs.

“Business’s loss inevitably leads to labour’s loss. After all, it is prosperous business that employs more people, while failing business ends up letting go of workers and eventually closing shop. What is needed is a constructive approach that seeks to advance the interest of our industries. We need an approach that focuses on a win-win situation as opposed to a winner-takes-all scenario,” Mr Trentini concluded.

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