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'Strike season' comes to South Africa

In what has become an annual event, South African unions are set to strike for better wages. While the unions claim wage hikes will reduce inequality, critics say they cause youth unemployment.

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The unions are claiming the moral high ground. They say that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world and that their demands seek to fix that. COSATU Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi reportedly said at a trade union march in Durban on Tuesday that it is a disgrace that 57 percent of South Africans lived on less than 325 rand ($47) a month while company executives earn an average 59 million rand ($8.6 million) a year.

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According to the South African Institute of Race Relations, youth unemployment in South Africa is as much as 51 percent and at least two-thirds of unemployed youths are African women.

Not a 'South African spring'

Mr. Vavi has in the past predicted Egypt-style uprisings in South Africa if the inequality problems were to continue. He has also predicted that this strike season will be the biggest yet as workers reassert their right to a living wage.

Such statements are nothing more than posturing, says Steven Friedman, political analyst and director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.

“Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, South Africa is a democracy. When people are unhappy, they can vote the government out, which will likely happen if the ANC does not get its act together,” Friedman says. “The protests we have seen and will see in South Africa have more to do with people trying to get government’s attention, not with trying to overthrow it.”

Some economists blame COSATU and its member unions for actually increasing unemployment through high-wage demands, but COSATU remains a powerful institution, with strong support from working-class South Africans for its efforts in dismantling the racist apartheid system in 1994. COSATU also has exerted its agenda within the ANC government, throwing its crucial support behind Jacob Zuma’s bid for leadership of the ANC in 2007, and his successful bid for the presidency in 2008.

Caught in the middle is the South African public, who Mr. Friedman says are anything from agnostic to supportive of trade unions as long as industrial action does not affect them directly.

Trade unions will have to go beyond their “struggle credentials” to win over public sentiment, Friedman says, especially if they plan the kind of protracted strikes that they have threatened in recent weeks.

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