SOUTH African President Nelson Mandela, facing the most serious challenge to his leadership since he was inaugurated three months ago, intervened over the weekend to prevent escalating labor unrest from developing into a damaging confrontation between his government and its former trade union allies.
Mr. Mandela, who led a top-level delegation of the African National Congress (ANC) in talks with union leaders on Saturday, appealed to workers and employers to use the collective bargaining system to resolve current labor unrest.
``Industrial peace in our country is extremely important,'' he said. Workers are entitled to high expectations, but they also have a responsibility to fulfill, he added.
The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions, the major black union federation that was closely aligned to the ANC in its anti-apartheid struggle, pulled back from earlier threats to hold a general strike on Aug. 8 if the wage disputes had not been resolved. But COSATU reaffirmed the right of workers to strike and rejected any attempts to portray the current labor disputes as a crisis.
During the past month, more than 50,000 workers in the store chain, catering, and municipal sectors have resorted to strikes in pursuit of better wages and working conditions.
The strikes followed deadlocks in annual wage negotiations. They have highlighted the division between the ANC in government - pushing for a social accord between labor, government, and the unions - and its left-wing allies outside government striving to meet black expectations following the country's first democratic elections in April.
The strikes and protests have led to several violent confrontations between workers and police. Mandela initially criticized the police for overreacting but later chided strikers who used violence and intimidation to achieve their goals.
Up to 120,000 metalworkers and some 385,000 mine workers - the two largest unionized sectors - are also in the final stages of wage negotiations. Some 80,000 steelworkers held a vote over the weekend and were due to decide today about strike action.
The ANC held a summit here over the weekend to define the relationship between ANC members in government and those outside.
ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa, a former leader of the powerful mine worker's union who turned down a Cabinet post, is seen as the link between these two ANC groups.
Concern is surfacing in diplomatic and political circles that the labor disputes could escalate into a left-wing challenge to an ANC government that is already growing comfortable with the benefits of political power.
There are signs of growing alienation among the ANC grassroots and left-wing union allies, civic groups, and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
The high-profile meeting on Saturday ended in a joint statement by the ANC and COSATU, in which they agreed that healthy industrial relations and investment were essential for the success of the government's Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), a blueprint for socioeconomic development to address the legacy of apartheid.
Mandela stirred a hornet's nest over the July 23 weekend by warning that strikes and violence would discourage foreign investors and retard the implementation of the RDP. He also criticized labor leaders for being unable to move away from resistance politics toward reconstruction and nation- building.
The president's warnings about alienating investors followed a World Bank warning that conflict-ridden industrial negotiations in South Africa could harm exports needed to penetrate international markets. In the recently published report ``Reducing Poverty in South Africa,'' the Bank says the relatively high cost of labor in South Africa makes the country's products ``entirely uncompetitive internationally.''
Mandela's criticism of strikers drew a strong reaction from the ANC-aligned SACP, which challenged his view that striking undermined the RDP and said it found some of the president's remarks disturbing.
COSATU Secretary-General Sam Shilowa, who had a frosty meeting with Mandela on July 19, held his ground in the face of mounting government pressure.
``Workers feel that after years of tightening their belts because of an economy in recession, they should reap more as the economy emerges out of that recession,'' Mr. Shilowa told a conference here on July 26, which brought together employers and union leaders.
``Political democratization will only have meaning if it is linked to the fight to overcome poverty and help curb unemployment,'' he said, adding that employers and labor need to understand each other. ``We must find each other and not pay lip service to workers rights.''