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Grant McDermott

Economics.
Environment.
Data science.

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During the last year, South Africa has been in the throes of violent upheaval in the mining industry. Most prominently the "Marikana massacre", which received widespread coverage in the international press. The story is a complex one involving increased tension between mining companies and their employees, warring trade union factions, and growing political dissent in the ANC's so-called Tripartite Alliance with the SACP and COSATU. Of course, the stuttering global economy provides a backdrop to all of this as profitability margins have been inexorably squeezed.

The strike action has also spilled over into the farming sector. While the mining industry is located in the far north of the country, the farm strikes have been concentrated in the Western Cape and are therefore much closer to home. The town where my parents live is in the heart of the Cape winelands and the bulk of local industry is very closely linked to farming activity. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, my father is an agronomist and has spent his working life involved in the agricultural sector.

The farm strikes have been much less violent than those in the mining sector, but have still  incurred dramatic economic costs. Stock worth hundreds of millions of Rands has been burned and lost to malicious action. Local trade union leaders have called on international consumers to boycott South African produce until their demands on are met. Quite how all of this is supposed to benefit farm workers and alleviate unemployment is beyond me. (I fear it is beyond the people calling for the boycott.)

One of the most frustrating aspects of these events is that the strikers themselves are not permanent farm staff. They are predominantly seasonal workers and, in even worse cases, simply unemployed people that have been bused in from the cities by venal and opportunistic political leaders. (As some important background, the Western Cape is the only province governed by the opposition DA. The ever gracious and democratically-minded ANC Youth League has responded to this situation not by improving its own service delivery or reconsidering its political manifesto, but by promising to make the province "ungovernable".)

Speaking to some farming friends during my recent trip home, I was left with the distinct impression that they have had enough and will be looking to move into full mechanisation. The ongoing labour issues impose not only higher costs, but also a unnerving atmosphere of unpredictability and uncertainty. Nature waits for no man and an unreliable workforce is one thing that farmers can ill afford; a missed irrigation or spraying session can significantly alter your chances of enjoying a good harvest. One farmer told me that he believes the only way forward for the region is to follow the "Californian model" of grape and wine production, which relies on very little human labour in bringing goods to market.

Going back to mining, the platinum giant Amplats this week announced that it would impose severe cost cutting and restructuring measures to maintain to the profitability of its local operations. Government officials were reportedly "shocked" by the move. Doubtless they are the only ones taken by surprise. With the exception, of course, of our myopic friends in the trade unions.

I'll leave the final word to another friend, also a farmer as it happens, who writes on Facebook:
After months of costly strikes, Amplats will close four shafts and cut 14000 jobs. Massive victory for the labour movement against the forces of imperialism and capitalism. Have no doubt that AMCU and NUM will now provide financial assistance to those 14000 workers and their families, after having pawned them for their blood, union fees and finally, their entire source of income.