Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, has called on striking miners to return to work and for chief executives to freeze any personal salary increases, amid months of industrial unrest and bloodshed that threaten to derail the nation’s economy.
After nearly five hours spent behind closed doors corralling business and labour leaders in Johannesburg on Wednesday, Zuma emerged with a collective demand for the tens of thousands who have downed tools illegally to go back to work “as soon as possible and for production in the mining industry to be normalised”.
“All parties agree to take steps to improve public and investor confidence in the economy and in social stability, using their respective resources and capacities to build a partnership for development,” Zuma was quoted as saying.
The president also called on senior officers in business and government to freeze their salary increases and bonuses for the next year as a “strong commitment to build an equitable economy”.
Attacked by critics for failing to stop months of turbulent strikes that have often spilled over into deadly violence, Zuma’s comments mark the government’s first decisive step to halt the widespread unrest.
“The frustrations and challenges that have become clearer during the protests, and the legitimate grievances, will be attended to.”
-Jacob Zuma, South Africa president
“The frustrations and challenges that have become clearer during the protests, and the legitimate grievances, will be attended to,” the president said.
He listed housing needs, pressures on wages caused by high levels of
personal debt and wage disparities “that create resentment and limit our social cohesion as South Africans”.
But it is unclear if the meeting will move the ball forward, let alone end a crisis that has spread like wildfire across the country’s industrial heartland and threatened to cripple already meagre growth.
Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst based in Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera that not all of the current unrest was driven by economic grievances and that some of it was political.
“Of course there are legitimate grievances, but these aren’t new; we have known about the structural inequality existing in this country since transition [in 1994],” he said.
Fakir said asking chief executives to freeze salary increases and bonuses might scare off investors, but was perhaps one of the only options in trying to facilitate a more equitable society.
“Given the place in which this society finds itself in, something has to give, and this might be one of the few options short of nationalising the mines which is, of course, a bad idea,” he said.
“But what is interesting, is that he [Zuma] can’t be seen advocating such an idea, and then allow allow himself a salary increase which he did two months ago.”
‘No position to mediate’
While Zuma and leaders representing major business associations and organised labour signed onto the statements, ultimately ending the crisis will come down to individual mineowners and miners who increasingly question the
legitimacy of established trade unions.
According to political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki, the police’s killing of 34 platinum miners at Marikana on August 16 has destroyed the government’s credibility as an honest broker and miners are unlikely to heed Zuma’s entreaties.
“They are in no position to mediate,” said Mbeki, the younger brother of former South African president Thabo Mbeki. “They should never have used force against the miners, that hardened the position of the workers.
“The government has been incredibly casual and callous about an industry that is important to millions of South Africans.”
Industrial relations are a subject fraught with political and economic dangers for Zuma, whose fate hangs on balancing policies that appeal to investors as well as leftists, communists and trade unionists within his ruling coalition.
“The government is a huge beneficiary of the mining industry in South Africa in terms of the taxes that it gets from the mining industry,” said Mbeki. “It sees itself losing taxes and losing hard currency earnings.
“But with two months until a party conference that could see him face a leadership challenge that would oust him from office, the political stakes could not be higher.
“It now challenges him personally because he wants to go to the African National Congress conference in Mangaung in December with a clean report,” Mbeki said.
Zuma on Wednesday also announced measures to develop down-at-heel mining towns, where people live in slums around mines with no electricity, running water or sanitation.
The plan includes ramping up projects to build public roads and put more people on the electricity grid.