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S. Africa labor strike points to party divide

Unions' wage demands are seen as part of a battle over succession and clout within the governing alliance.

June 14, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG — A split between the South African government and labor unions deepened Wednesday as thousands of striking public sector workers rallied for a 10% pay raise, in a contest many see as a precursor to the struggle over who will succeed President Thabo Mbeki.

The public sector strike has disrupted hospitals, schools and transportation and has seen violence, with workers intimidating students taking exams and hospital visitors.

There was a heavy police presence Wednesday as tens of thousands of people protested in South Africa's major cities. Union leaders, who rejected the government's latest offer of a 7.25% wage increase, warned that the dispute would probably drag on.

Efforts to resolve the 12-day strike have been complicated by the government's recent dismissal of thousands of striking essential services workers, such as nurses.

Many analysts see the strike in the context of the ruling African National Congress' internal politics, with the party due this year to select its next leader, who probably will succeed Mbeki as the nation's president, or have a big influence on who does. The constitution bars Mbeki, whose second term ends in 2009, from seeking reelection.

The strike underscores widespread discontent in the labor movement over the pro-business approach of the ANC government. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, which is part of the tripartite alliance that governs the country, has become increasingly confrontational. The Communist Party is the third member of the strained alliance.

The unions originally demanded a 12% pay boost, well above the 6.3% inflation rate. Their aggressive stance was a sign that the strike was a political battle over succession and influence within the governing alliance, said analyst Jovial Rantao, editor of the weekly Sunday Independent newspaper.

The government originally offered a 6% raise but boosted the figure Tuesday at the urging of mediators.

"This is a political strike that actually has been tailor-made for the unions to show the government that, 'We have got muscles, and we can bring this country to its knees if we want to,' " said Rantao, adding that the strike was closely linked to the ANC's emerging leadership battle.

Many key COSATU figures are backing the populist former deputy president, Jacob Zuma, in what has become a divisive battle within the ruling party and affiliated unions.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that the very same people who are the most vocal in this strike are the very same people who have been vocal in their support for Mr. Zuma," Rantao said.

The Cabinet met Wednesday in Cape Town and expressed confidence that a settlement would be reached soon. But it accused the union leadership of doing little to inform members about the government's offer.

The strike has disrupted examinations for many public school students. There also have been media reports, strongly denied by unions, of deaths in public hospitals.

"In our view, no amount of anger and frustration can justify the violent disruption of midyear examinations, trashing of an operation theater in a hospital or preventing a pregnant mother from accessing urgent medical attention. This situation is totally unacceptable," the Cabinet said in a statement, referring to incidents reported during the strike.

"The use of violence and intimidation to force others to join a strike can never be justified in a democracy, least of all our democracy that so many of our people died for," it said.

COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said that the 7.25% pay raise offer was an insult to unions and that the struggle would continue.

"We are not moving back, not one inch. So the government has a choice: Do they see a long, long winter, or do they want to settle?"

Wage negotiations are to continue Friday.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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