In 1987 an anti-apartheid firebrand named Cyril Ramaphosa led SA’s biggest mining strike. About 300,000 miners — from a union Ramaphosa himself had founded — walked off the job, protesting against pay and working conditions. The mining company “used fascist methods to destroy workers’ lives”, Ramaphosa declared. During the three-week strike, nine people were killed, 500 were injured and more than 50,000 were fired. Still, it demonstrated the power that organised black labour could exercise and the economic damage it could inflict on SA. Three decades later Ramaphosa, now the reformist president of his country, is seeing the issue from the other side. One of the chief obstacles to his agenda is SA’s powerful unions, which are deeply embedded in the government and economy. To reignite growth in a stagnating economy and lower one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, he may need to take on the movement he helped create. Some analysts call it his “Thatcher moment”, a reference to t...

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