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Workers take to the streets in South Africa

The economic downturn, along with unmet expectations, fuels strike season.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Thousands of municipal workers marched through downtown Johannesburg this week to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

Workers carried the occasional stick or truncheon and protesters vented their frustration at garbage cans, throwing their contents on streets and public parks, as mounted police watched for signs of more serious violence.

Jane Dlomo, a 35-year-old gardener at Johannesburg’s zoo, said she spends more than $4 every day just to get to work. With food prices skyrocketing, a significant wage increase is a necessity, she said. “It’s very painful,” Dlomo said. “That is why we have to strike.”

A few hundred yards away, several dozen workers in the paper industry were picketing outside the offices of Sappi, a major paper producer. The numbers were smaller, but the demands were much the same.

“Management continue to give to give themselves huge bonuses despite the fact that workers are earning very low wages,” said Michael Mokoana, a union official present at the strike. “It really doesn’t make sense to us.”

South Africa has been rocked by a wave of strikes. Workers across many sectors, from mining and health care to telecommunications, have walked off their jobs in recent weeks. It is strike season in South Africa, as wage negotiations typically take place at this time of the year. This year the context for the labor actions is much different.

A strike by construction workers threatened preparations for the World Cup soccer tournament, just one year away. In July they settled for pay increases of 12 percent.

South Africa, Africa’s largest economy, has entered its first recession in 17 years, and unemployment has climbed to 23.6 percent. At the same time, inflation remains stubbornly high, at 8 percent, putting the working class in a financial bind.

While workers’ money is getting scarce, their expectations are on the rise. In April, Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency in large part thanks to the support of the unemployed and blue-collar workers. Zuma, himself a man of humble origins, is perceived as more receptive to the plight of the poor than his predecessor, the aloof Thabo Mbeki.

Flexing its muscles, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), a member of the ruling tripartite alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, has grown more vocal recently, trying to block the sale of a government-owned telecommunications unit and calling for the replacement of the reserve bank governor.

The ANC has shown signs of losing patience with the demands of its labor partners but the unions are nonetheless determined to get something in return for their unwavering support of Zuma and the ANC ticket, said Jonathan Yudelowitz, a leadership expert with years of experience in industrial relations.

“They brought the ANC to power,” Yudelowitz said. “It was their organization that mobilized people internally, and I think they believe that there should be some kind of payback.”

Unions played a major role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and they retain a prominent place in South Africa’s society. Cosatu, for instance, boasts more than 2 million members. Claire Ceruti, a researcher at the University of Johannesburg, said the number and intensity of strikes rose in recent years before reaching a high in 2007 as unions’ requests increasingly fell on deaf ears with the Mbeki administration. Cosatu decided to back Mbeki’s rival, Zuma, helping him first to secure the helm of the ANC in 2007 and the presidency this year.

Ceruti said the current wave of strikes is the result of a combination of impatience from struggling workers whose wages often have to support unemployed relatives with their desire to bring the government’s attention to their situation. She said the strikes put enormous pressure on Zuma, who is also eager to satisfy his business constituency.

“People are also potentially taking confidence from each other, so I think this is a wave of strikes that could also grow to something much bigger and then, of course, he’d have to weigh in,” Ceruti said.

The strikes do make the ANC a bit nervous, said political analyst Steven Friedman, who added that the work stoppages are first and foremost due to deteriorating economic conditions. The government is limited as to how much it can afford to pay public-sector workers, he said.

“The country has very severe spending constraints at the moment, so there isn’t some sort of bottomless pit there,” Friedman said. “There is not going to be a big spending spree to make the unions happy.”

The South African Local Government Association, which handles wage negotiations with municipal workers, acknowledged that some municipalities are feeling the pinch. The parties are closer than when they started, but workers still demand a 15 percent wage increase with a minimum of $650 a month whereas SALGA offers a 13 percent pay hike and a minimum monthly wage of $515.

Authorities are eager to resolve the strike as it threatens to exacerbate a recent string of protests in townships by residents who are still waiting for the government to fulfill its promises of housing, electricity and running water. Recently, the local provincial government acknowledged that it wouldn’t be able to eradicate shacks by 2014 as it originally announced because of budget constraints.

Back on the Johannesburg’s streets, workers at the Sappi paper plant scored a victory. After the new round of negotiations, the company increased its pay raise to 9 percent, above South Africa’s inflation rate. All workers are scheduled to return to work, said Andre Oberholzer, Sappi’s head of corporate affairs.

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