The among the reasons I have failed to publish here for almost six weeks is I have been on a seemingly endless roadshow (series of presentations to fund managers domestically and in Europe and the UK) that started with Marikana, morphed into Telkom and is on its way back to its origins by focusing more on the strikes cascading through our economy. Combined with this is my contractual obligations to write political commentary for my clients – with a degree of exclusivity as part of the reasons why I get paid for it. Thus I have had almost no time to write anything here.

Another, more difficult to explain  reason for my coming to a virtual publishing standltill on my  blog is that my views about the state of the nation have darkened considerably since Markina and I have been gestating the idea that the National Union of Mineworkers’ loss of support and the Marikana shooting might be an almost perfect metaphor – or even predictive model – for the state of the ANC and its relation to society more generally.

I will try to put some flesh on those bones during the course of the week. But meanwhile here is a short opinion piece I wrote last week for clients of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities concerning the putative relationship between the strike wave and Julius Malema.

Will the wildcat strikes in the mining sector and Julius Malema’s populist campaign link up in a way that drives them both further, harder and deeper than they would have been driven separately and apart?

The South African news flow is confusing and jarring at the moment – and might well be driving sentiment against resource counters.  What follows is not a definitive answer to the question, but my first case expectation is that the strikes will be resolved through wage offers and that Malema will continue to get some traction with the strikers but that his ‘fight back’ campaign against Zuma and against his (Malema’s) expulsion has not got an endless potential to unravel South Africa.

We would be remiss if we did not keep the possibility of a generalised revolt and economic paralysis in mind but if I was forced to bet on an outcome – which I would not do unless forced, because the future is impossible to know before it arrives - I would guess we are approaching the apex of the threat in this specific confluence of events.

Here’s why:

Strikes

Strike action sometimes cascades through an economy and to some degree this is what is happening in the mining sector. However, in my opinion the press is too simply portraying the myriad strike actions in different parts of the economy as belonging to the same trend, when in fact some of the strikes are normal and predictable events is our collective bargaining system.

The ‘wild cat strikes’ (i.e. unprotected in law and outside of the collective bargaining system) starting in the platinum sector (with the Marikana incident at Lonmin giving the most impetus) are now spreading through the gold sector. In coal and in transport ‘protected’ (i.e. part of the collective bargaining process and stemming from a failure to agree upon a wage settlement) strikes are underway.

It is clear from union (Cosatu’s Satawu – the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union) statements concerning the truck drivers’ strike that at least some of the momentum and energy of the settlement at Marikana is being used to give the strikers hope and encouragement, but it is likely that this strike would have happened even if there was no “Marikana’ to help spur it on. This strike came about as a result of a deadlock in wage negotiations and began on Monday morning.

The platinum and gold strikes are a different matter entirely. Workers can be legally dismissed for partaking in these ‘unprotected’ strikes – for example Amplats CEO Chris Griffith indicated yesterday that the company would consider dismissals if workers did not return to work from today. Press reports indicate that 35 000 workers at AngloGold’s Kopanang mine have joined the action. Business Report suggests that there are approximately 75 000 workers (15 % of the workforce) on strike (or prevented from going to work because of intimidation) across South Africa’s mining sector. These numbers are significant, but not overwhelming.

Nic Dinham, head of resources at BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities in South Africa has pointed out that most workers, even the supposedly especially militant Rock Drill Operators, returned to work at Marikana for an increase of just over R2000 – and this despite the violence and anger that followed the police shootings. “This hardly seems revolutionary to me”, he said in a comment yesterday.

A wildcard variable here is if there were high levels of dismissals this might lead to the strikes being more protracted and serious than I expect; alternatively the closure of certain shaft and operations might break the transmission mechanism for the spread of the strike more quickly.

Julius Malema

Julius Malema’s on-going push to insert himself into the mining strike is going to cause worries today. He said outside his money laundering hearing yesterday: “These charges which they brought against me, they do not affect me at all. I am unshaken, I am not intimidated. I am going to continue the struggle against economic freedom (sic), they are wasting time. Tomorrow I am going to Impala mine in Rustenburg; we are going to encourage the workers to demand R12 500.”

There is no evidence that Malema caused  – directly or indirectly – the strike at Impala in January or the strike at Lonmin that culminated in the Marikana incident on August 16. It is true that he was welcomed by strikers both at Impala and at Marikana – and is likely to be welcomed at Lonmin again today (although the police might stop him as they did at his second attempt to address the Marikana strikers.) But if the strikers will, ultimately, go back to work as soon as they have achieved a satisfactory (to them) wage settlement, why would we imagine that the mine workers are a potential revolutionary base for Julius Malema?

Julius Malema is on trial for money laundering – in a case that implicates him and his close allies in serious criminal activity (money laundering carries an up to 15 year jail term). Malema argues (with  some justification, at least with regard to timing) that the case is politically motivated. This raises the compelling comparison between what is happening to Malema in the lead-up to Mangaung and what happened to Zuma in the lead up to Polokwane in 2007.

Zuma and his allies managed to turn corruption allegations into a successful campaign for the presidency of the ANC and the country – largely by portraying Zuma as a victim of Thabo Mbeki’s manipulations of the criminal justice system. It is important to note that this campaign was ultimately focussed on a vote at the ANC’s national conference and it never had a significant element of mass-mobilisation (except symbolically) and it certainly never looked like it might spill-over into some form of generalised unrest.

At this stage in the lead-up to Polokwane Zuma was already being backed by several regions of the ANC and by the ANC Youth League, the SACP, Cosatu and the ANCY Women’s League. Within the ruling alliance Malema has no official or formal support from any structure, except for a split vote in the Youth League – and, ultimately, succession will be determined by a vote at the ANC’s national conference in December and not by popular opinion. It is my view that what happened at Marikana indicates that the “formal structures” of the Ruling Alliance are not the determinant of history that they once were, but the Mangaung vote is purely an ANC affair and not necessary responsive to popular sentiment.

Unlike Zuma in 2007, Malema has been expelled from the ANC and is now free to take his campaign to the streets – but is also denied the ability to fight within ANC structures for reinstatement and/or for Kgalema Motlanthe to replace Zuma as president in December. Nominations formally open in ANC structures next week Monday (1st of October).

A Wildcard variable here would be if Zuma and the state security apparatus gave in to the temptation to detain Malema on charges similar to sedition – this could give the crisis significant legs; alternatively it would take out of play a key element of the conflict and might lead to an early resolution of this particular contest.

Conclusion

None of this speaks directly to possible impacts on the market. The price of a number of financial instruments might be affected – perhaps quite seriously – through lost production and through negative sentiment more generally about the South African story.

My own view is that the medium term political risk environment is significantly elevated through a combination of these factors (wild cat strikes and Malema) –  along with the growing interdependency of the incumbent faction of the ANC and Cosatu (leading to greater state intervention in the economy and a more onerous labour market regime) growing violence in ANC internal election processes (largely because of intensity of competition to control patronage networks), the growing collapse of the boundaries between the public and private sector (corruption and tender-abuse) and an inability to resolve the social malaise engendered by unacceptably high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty (leading to social instability and opportunities for populist politics).

Thus my answer to the opening question is:

I think the confluence of events makes the crisis larger than the sum of its parts, but it does not have an unlimited potential to become a more generalised and sustained revolt – thus no Arab Spring situation. However, as a backdrop to increased political risk it will have significant financial market impacts.

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