Customers queue to draw money from an ATM outside a branch of First National Bank and Nedbank at a mall in Midrand outside Johannesburg. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Customers queue to draw money from an ATM outside a branch of First National Bank and Nedbank at a mall in Midrand outside Johannesburg. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Trade union federation Cosatu and its affiliate, finance union Sasbo, were left nursing bloodied noses after the labour court halted their planned strike set to shut SA’s banks on Friday.

It didn’t take long for the unions to reply with familiar and predictable slogans. A few minutes after Judge Hilary Rabkin-Naicker had delivered her ruling, union leaders criticised her for favouring “capitalism”.

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The ruling served as a sobering reminder that no-one is above the law and that unions wouldn’t be allowed to hold the economy to ransom.

A total shutdown of one of the sectors that keep the economy running would have had devastating consequences.

But that was the last thing on Sasbo general secretary Joe Kokela’s mind. He told Business Day earlier in September that the protest action was aimed at “proving a point” and teaching the banking sector bosses a “costly lesson”.

In an economy that the SA Reserve Bank expects to grow just 0.6% in 2019, embarking on a strike that had such an ill-defined purpose would to most people seem unwise, especially if it led to more of his members losing their jobs.

Cosatu deputy general secretary Solly Phetoe said the action was to protest against “the exploitation, against the continuation of retrenchments both in the banks sector, but also in the manufacturing, in the mining, in the farming area”.

So rather than a single issue that affected bank workers in particular and could be resolved in negotiations, they were using the strike to tackle structural changes that probably cannot be reversed, even if banks’ management was inclined to try.

Like other industries, banking has to adapt to technological advances and changes in consumer behaviour towards digital solutions. If fewer people want to use branches, it makes sense for banks to reduce their numbers.

The sector is still one of the biggest employers in SA, and according to the Banking Association SA (Basa), it had actually increased employee numbers in recent years, despite a weak economy.

Shutting it down seemed counterproductive. And it’s hard to accept the argument that the strike was so urgent that unions couldn’t go through a proper process, instead using a two-year-old notice filed at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).

Basa maintains that protest action will not help to address realities facing the industry, but will instead “further burden the economy and deter investment”.

“The only sustainable solution is improved education and attracting higher levels of investment to drive economic growth and job creation. These require government, labour and business to work together in the national interest,” the association says.

But it is of no use to speak to those who are not prepared to listen. The protest action, after all, was about proving a point and teaching the industry a lesson.

However, the unions’ frustrations cannot be dismissed entirely and resentment of the mouthwatering amounts paid to CEOs, not just at banks, while ordinary workers are losing their jobs and those who are lucky to stay employed, have to settle for little or no pay increases.

On the face of it, the sector doesn’t have a crisis of profit, a factor that is surely demonstrated in the ability of boards to approve salaries for the heads of the six biggest banks, the lowest of which is a whopping R30m.

Juxtapose that with the R21,190 a month the average worker gets paid in SA, and reality will slap you across the face that such increasing inequality is unsustainable.

If the government does not take the necessary steps to address these issues, there could indeed be an “unled revolution in this country”, to borrow EFF leader Julius Malema’s words.

Anarchy is the first thing that comes to mind when pondering what an unled revolution could lead to in SA.

The planned action by bank workers on Friday may have been misguided and counterproductive. Ignoring the source of their grievance will be doubly so.

And it won’t just be the banks that are left counting the cost.

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