Monday, October 22, 2012

From carrot to stick.

We have passed a perilous point when threats become a dominant part of negotiation.

Ben Coetsee has passed on. He was the hero I wrote about in an article some time back who found himself in the midst of a mob of striking miners that murdered a close colleague. They crushed his colleague’s skull with home fashioned pangas and stabbed him in the chest with a length of sharpened rebar.

Ben had joined a group of officials that had gone to the arena of the West Rand mine to appease a few thousand striking workers. As they made their way to the centre of the arena, they were attacked by a group of chanting and crazed strikers. Dragging their severely wounded and dying colleague with them, they all sprinted for the car, bundled in and drove through a gauntlet of rocks, bricks and panga slashes until they were able to reach the relative safety of the mine offices.

It was not only that act that has earned Ben a reluctant accolade of heroism, but also what he told me about a year ago: “I have a fundamental belief in the good of most human beings,” he said. “Even at the time, I believed that most on all sides were sincere in trying to resolve our differences.”

Alas, not even a big, pure and generous heart can withstand physical failure that prematurely removes from our midst the precious likes of Ben. They are needed most in these troubled times. Puzzlingly so when one thinks that those were the tumultuous 80’s and incidents of that kind, of which there were many, were viewed as “growing pains” in an arena that was to fashion “labour laws amongst the most advanced in the world.”

Like many of the provisions of our revered Constitution, those aspirations were written in stone as if to ensure their unassailable truth and permanence. Yet they lie in shreds, forlorn and impossible to nurture in an atmosphere of malevolence and unbridled, undisciplined mob action.

Intolerable incongruities and hypocrisies are endured daily in the name of sanctimonious theories of freedom and rights. The right to strike automatically implies the right to extort and intimidate – removing from others an even more precious right to work. The right to protest invariably leads to the impediment of the freedom of movement of others. The right to coerce overrides a national right to expect unimpaired economic growth, job creation and enhanced prosperity.

Above all, we have reached a point where the right to industrial action often implies superseding the most fundamental right of all – the right to life itself.

The law really does become the proverbial ass when the trucking industry has to apply for an interdict to stop strikers from behaving lawlessly -- even more so when it fails dismally to hold a group to account because the blame resides with unidentifiable individuals in that group. When employees base demands on a simple calculation between the cost of a strike and the cost of their demands, all rational thinking is lost. According to an ENCA report, Kumba striking miners made a simple calculation to support their demand for a R15000 pm increase: that a strike would cost the employer more than the increase would.

Of course the logic is severely flawed, but the key and frightening issue is that wild-cat strikes, violence and intimidation are now seen as a relevant factor in bargaining itself; indeed that extortion is no longer a vice but a legitimate part of the process. It is what happens when expectations lose touch completely with reality. One can only guess the extent to which misguided and misunderstood employee share options and of course dubious executive pay levels help fuel these. If Kumba workers are examples of worker capitalists then heaven protect us from its growth.

But those are theories that belong in the endless debate about causes – a debate that fills the news and current affairs media, as well as the minds and utterances of politicians, analysts, academics and yes, even journalists like myself. The same refrain was sung after President Zuma’s meeting with stakeholders when a more assuring stance would have detailed immediate and determined steps to quell the unrest.

Causes are always valid and cannot be ignored. Indeed even the current turmoil may reflect a deeper evolution which I intend writing about soon. But what we have to deal with most urgently are symptoms, irrespective of causes. If we don’t effectively treat the symptoms, addressing the causes will escape us. Murder is murder; violence is violence; and intimidation is intimidation. We have to address those ruthlessly regardless of arguments around extenuating circumstances.

The rules of accountability have to be rigorously tightened. If recklessly driving pop stars can be found guilty of murder because they “could reasonably have foreseen the possible consequences of their actions”, then surely the same rules can apply to industrial action and its organisers. Its timing and context may have been unfortunate but the NPA’s aborted attempt to apply common purpose in the Marikana murders may merit a revisit in future circumstances.

Jurisprudence and law become irrelevant when the threat of more lawlessness impairs action against current lawlessness. It’s a tool the Mafia used to great effect. It gives substance to Edmund Burke’s state of evil triumphing “when good men stand by and do nothing”.

There’s a point at which liberty becomes a threat to itself. At that point the velvet glove has to be removed to reveal the iron fist.

No right can be absolute.

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