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Profile : Jay Naidoo Strikes Fear in S. African Big Business Because He Is : The Voice of the Workers


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — His face alone sends nervous shudders through South Africa's powerful white business Establishment. And when he speaks, his brand of political fire and brimstone can make the most even-tempered magnate turn pale with anger.

The object of this hatred--and, some say, fear--is Jay Naidoo (NIGH-doo), the 37-year-old general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the country's most powerful labor federation. While white men control the paychecks for most blacks, Naidoo commands the allegiance of three dozen unions and 1.2 million black workers--the backbone of South Africa's shop floor.

He has the power to virtually shut industry down, and he's not shy about using that weapon to advance the political objectives of his members. He proved that again Monday when more than half of the country's black work force heeded his call for a two-day national strike, sponsored by COSATU and its close ally, the African National Congress.

"We want to make clear that President (Frederik W.) de Klerk cannot rule without our consent," Naidoo said. "This is the last signal to the government and big business that we are rapidly running out of patience."

South Africa's white businessmen, who embrace the ideal of free-market capitalism, have their worries about the policy of nationalization espoused by Nelson Mandela's ANC and Chris Hani's Communist Party. But it is Naidoo's COSATU, which carries the battle against white-minority rule onto the shop floor, that brings out business' most visceral fears.

The man who personifies COSATU is a tall, angular Indian with a crooked black mustache, wild black hair, piercing dark eyes and a pointy black beard. He looks, even his closest friends admit, demonic. And his speeches, with their charismatic effect on the impoverished black masses, are among the most radical heard in South Africa these days.

"I'm not the radical they make me out to be, you know," he said the other day, striding down a corridor at COSATU's headquarters in downtown Johannesburg.

Seeing doubt on his questioner's face, he smiled. "Well, yes," he acknowledged. "Sometimes you have to be a radical to represent the people."

The ANC's decision to suspend talks with the government, strongly supported by COSATU, and a monthlong campaign of spot strikes, sit-ins, consumer boycotts, rallies and marches to force concessions from De Klerk's government have brought Naidoo again to center stage.

At a funeral for victims of the Boipatong massacre, Naidoo led the crowd in chants of "De Klerk must go! De Klerk must go!"

"We will take to the streets to force you to go," Naidoo vowed. "We are not your kitchen maids. We are not your garden boys. The final battle has come for our freedom. We are sick and tired of endless negotiations."

If the economy goes down the drain, so be it, Naidoo added. "We will take you to hell with us," he warned big business.

The government and white corporate executives say they don't oppose the right of voteless blacks to protest. But they warn that the result will be irreversible economic damage, renewed violence and a delay in the resumption of negotiations. And they also suspect that leaders such as Naidoo want to overthrow the government by force.

Mandela denies any desire to create anarchy. He says the mass protests simply are designed to get negotiations back on track by forcing the government to bargain fairly with the ANC and act decisively to end violence.

And Naidoo, in the quiet of his office, agreed. "We're committed to peaceful negotiations," he said.

But he added that black workers are angry because constitutional negotiations "have failed to deliver the goods. We're just not convinced that this government is committed fundamentally to democracy."

Naidoo acknowledges that the two-day strike will result in docked pay for black workers and could add to the swelling millions of jobless blacks. But he says it's the only way to force business leaders to join black workers in applying pressure on the government to change.

"Certainly the economy is going to be hurt," Naidoo said. "But sometimes you have to cut out the cancer to create a healthy body."

The author of those fighting words was born Jayaseelan Naidoo, one of seven children of a court interpreter in the Indian Ocean port of Durban. Like many activists of his generation, Naidoo was greatly influenced by Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977. Naidoo rose through the union ranks to lead the Sweet, Food and Allied Workers Union at the age of 26 and, two years later, helped found COSATU, becoming its general secretary. The congress, representing workers in the mines, auto factories, textile plants and other industries, quickly became a powerful force in forcing political change.

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