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South Africans take strike rumors in stride – except when it's soccer

Labor unrest abounds during South Africa's 'negotiation season,' but talk of a soccer strike chilled nation.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 2009



Johannesburg, South Africa

In soccer, the term "to strike" has only one meaning, and it's a positive one. It means kicking the ball into the opponent's goal and then running around the field pumping one's fist and eventually getting completely buried in a dogpile of one's teammates.

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But this week, South Africa's national soccer team was rumored to be about to go "on strike" over wages. You can imagine how that went over with fans.

The concern was not irrational. This month, South Africa is hosting the Confederations Cup, a kind of warmup for the 2010 World Cup to be held in South Africa next year.

Nations from around the world will be competing at stadiums around the country, and South Africa's team – not among the top-tier teams – desperately needs to perform well in order to hold the interest of the fans at home.

Buses, taxis, doctors... oh, my!

The strike rumors also come at a time when nearly all of South Africa seems to be on strike.

First it was taxi drivers demanding their fair share of World Cup customers, who might otherwise have been driven around by South Africa's proposed new bus service.

Then it was bus drivers demanding higher wages.

Then it was doctors, who (accurately) complained that bus drivers were now earning more than doctors.

South African Defense Forces soldiers threatened a strike after a senior admiral said he wouldn't salute the new president Jacob Zuma.

The National Union of Metal Workers threatened a strike against Toyota, when it considered job cuts. Teachers are on strike, prison workers are on strike.

And now, Bafana Bafana?

"It's the negotiation season," says Adam Habib, a political analyst and vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg.

Many labor union contracts are coming up for renewal, just as a new self-proclaimed "pro-poor" president has taken power in South Africa: Jacob Zuma.

"But add to that the fact that the national share of the income for labor union members has declined in recent years," Mr. Habib adds, "and the backlash against the massive bonuses for company executives, and you can understand why these strikes are happening."

But as it turns out, the rumored soccer strike was never considered. Central defender Matthew Booth told a press conference over the weekend that his teammates had entered negotiations with management last week and had accepted a deal as soon as it hit the table.

"The players cannot wait for the tournament to begin," Mr. Booth told reporters. "We have worked hard for four weeks in camp and there would be no way we would jeopardize our chances of playing in a major Fifa event like this over money."

That's the spirit. Now to face the Iraqi national team on Sunday, June 14.

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