Labour Relations in SA 40 Years Behind the Times, Says US ambassador

8 Oct 2014 | Business Day | NICHOLAS KOTCH (Africa Writer)

THE conduct of labour relations in SA comes across as worryingly anachronistic, the US ambassador said yesterday, referring to a pattern of long strikes in mining and other industries.

“SA sometimes seems to be 40 years behind the times when it comes to labour relations,” Patrick Gaspard told a forum in Sandton on US-Africa trade and investment.

Mr Gaspard is a confidant of US President Barack Obama and has not been shy about speaking his mind on political and labour issues since arriving in Pretoria late last year. Yesterday he focused on the five-month platinum strike in the Rustenburg area in the first half of this year.

“Workers finally agreed the same contract terms that were basically offered two weeks into the strike,” the envoy told business leaders at Nedbank’s headquarters.

A former trade union organiser in the US, Mr Gaspard returned to the theme of several of his public interventions this year — that there is often a dialogue of the deaf during South African strikes and that the government was slow to get actively involved in resolving them.

The International Monetary Fund has cut its South African economic growth outlook for this year to 1.4% from 1.7% in July, citing industrial tension and delays in fixing infrastructure gaps.

Current union wage demands in some sectors are well above inflation and the South African Post Office is being crippled by a long strike.

But the US ambassador said despite some disputes with SA, “we have had a great bilateral relationship. We usually end up with the same solutions.”

The highlight in trade relations since 2000 has been Agoa (African Growth and Opportunity Act), legislation that gives myriad African goods and services duty-free access to the American market. For SA, the value of those exports was $2bn in 2013 and included 60,000 luxury cars made in Port Elizabeth and other car plants, Mr Gaspard said.

The forum was co-organised with the business foundation of Nepad (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) and the stated purpose was to look at the outcomes of the first US-Africa summit.

Nearly 50 African presidents and prime ministers were hosted by Mr Obama in Washington in August, at an event widely seen as an attempt to start catching up with China, Africa’s largest trading partner.

“The most important outcome was that it illustrated we are at a point of reflection in the relationship (between the US and Africa),” said Mr Gaspard. No state representative from SA spoke at the forum.

Washington-based Scott Eisner, of the US Chamber of Commerce, said the growing competition for business in Africa, between the US and China in particular, was positive. SA had to be aware that it was facing mounting competition from other African countries, with Kenya looming as the main rival in manufacturing, Mr Eisner said.