, JOHANNESBURG, Jan 21 – South Africa’s labour minister urged union leaders to avoid prolonged industrial action, ahead of a major mining strike beginning Thursday, as she lamented a year marked by “conflict and controversy.”
Giving an annual address to organised labour Tuesday, Mildred Oliphant called for union leaders to take a firm stand against protest violence and to look again at “the wisdom of prolonged strikes.”
“After a certain period of sustained action, the strike ceases to be a weapon for workers interests but an arrow that inflicts pain and wounds in the workers themselves,” she said.
Oliphant spoke just two days before tens of thousands of gold and platinum miners were set to down tools again amid a pay dispute.
In 2013 strikes in the mining, automotive and transport sectors trimmed already modest growth in Africa’s largest economy.
Oliphant acknowledged that the last year was “highly contested” and “marked by conflict and controversy” in terms of labour relations.
But, she said, things can only improve.
“It can only get better from here and that will be possible if we make a commitment to work together in addressing the many challenges that face us.”
The strikes come against the backdrop of a country with searing inequality and painfully high unemployment, which officially stands at 25 percent.
The African National Congress-led government hopes to create 2.8 million new jobs by 2015, but its reform efforts have been thwarted by the left wing and union allies.
Oliphant dismissed calls from the International Monetary Fund and others for South Africa to implement labour reforms quickly.
“There are also some who are clearly of the view that our labour legislation is too restrictive and that the South African labour market is over-regulated. We certainly don’t think so.”
That is unlikely to sit well with investors, who have labelled South Africa a part of the “fragile five” economies — along with Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey.