S. Africa's unions take demands to the streets

The labor-friendly Zuma is facing pressure on wages and job security. Public anger has led to riots in poor neighborhoods.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Protesters chant slogans during a strike in Johannesburg on Monday.

As recession continues to take its toll, eliminating nearly a quarter-million jobs in the past few months, South African unions have taken their anger to the streets.

Just months after throwing their support behind the African National Congress and its labor-friendly presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma, unions have demanded greater job security, wage increases, and other benefits. The demands come at a time when neither recession-hit businesses nor government agencies have much extra cash to give.

In Johannesburg, municipal workers tied up traffic in the main business district, marching to city hall with their list of grievances. Chemical workers have threatened strikes against state-owned Sasol oil company. Construction workers are also threatening strikes on massive infrastructure projects, putting South Africa's 2010 World Cup stadiums at risk of missing deadlines.

And today, communications workers announced a renewed strike against the public broadcaster SABC and a brand-new strike against the state-owned telephone company, Telkom.

At a time when South Africa is trying to stand above its African neighbors as a stablemarket and business hub, these strikes couldn't be more ill-timed.

Political observers say that unless President Zuma and his cabinet engage unions, there is potential for further industrial disruption -- and for the anger of working class South Africa to spiral out of control.

"I think the [South African] state is playing this badly," says Adam Habib, a political analyst and vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. "If these guys don't get ahead of this thing and start thinking strategically, you risk a very bad situation that feeds off of the strikes."

Public anger

Already, public anger has taken a violent turn in the densely populated townships, or slums, on the outskirts of Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Poor South African citizens frustrated at the government's failure to bring in drinking water, electricity, and other public services have mounted violent protests, taking their anger out especially on the economic migrants in their midst, including ethnic Somali shopkeepers, whom they see as taking away business from local merchants.

Labor organizers recognize that the Zuma government could not possibly meet all the expectations of South Africa's poor in only its first three months in power, and in a harsh recession at that. But they say the government could do more to ensure that workers don't bear a disproportionate burden of the economic pain.

Municipal Workers Union general secretary Mthandeki Nhlapho told The Times, a South African newspaper, that the Zuma government had "committed to reducing poverty and inequality."

Citing growing wage gaps between government managers and ordinary employees, he said, "we cannot continue like this ... we can only force a change by engaging in a strike."

So far, the Zuma government's tough stance against unions has earned confidence from business. But Pravin Gordhan, the finance minister, said this toughmindedness is based on the economic reality that the government simply can't afford to increase salaries when government tax receipts are falling.

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