South African Strike Poses a Dilemma for Zuma

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

South African state workers seeking higher wages take part in a strike outside a hospital in Soweto on Aug. 19, 2010

The use of rubber bullets by South African police against striking public-sector workers in Soweto — erstwhile cauldron of antiapartheid protest — carries a symbolic significance that will send shockwaves through the country. But it also marks a milestone in the slow transition by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) from being a rebel movement that reflexively backed striking workers to being a government that can't afford to heed their demands.

Police opened fire with rubber bullets and water cannon after crowds of strikers in the township outside Johannesburg refused to end their blockade of a main road near a hospital that had halted traffic and prevented patients from entering. "Minimum force had to be used," said police spokeswoman Captain Nondumiso Mpantsha, adding that there were no major injuries.

The clash came after South Africa's public-sector unions — representing 1.3 million teachers, nurses, bureaucrats and others — on Wednesday began an indefinite nationwide walkout in a dispute over pay. The unions are demanding an 8.6% pay increase, more than double the inflation rate, and an extra 1,000 rand ($138) a month for housing. The government says it cannot afford that without cutting services, and has offered 7% and 700 rand. The strike has already shut schools across the country, treatment at hospitals has been disrupted and unions are staging blockades of main roads in cities. Also on Thursday, in the private sector, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa said it would begin strike action in the fuel, tire and car-component sectors from next week.

The strikes represent a political conundrum for President Jacob Zuma, whose rise to power in 2009 involved heavy political and financial backing from the unions. But caving in to their demands would imperil his government's efforts to create an economic growth environment that could begin to reverse South Africa's chronic unemployment. Zuma's dilemma underscores the growing maturity of the ANC, 16 years after its leaders switched roles from freedom fighters to ministers. Asked whether the strike would have much of an impact on an economy he'd predicted would grow 3% this year, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan struck a sanguine note. "I don't think so," Gordhan said. "I think this is part of normal democracy and we must expect employers and employees to have these contestations now and again. My only appeal would be that we resolve it as quickly as possible."

That could happen. The South African winter, when pay rates come up for annual review, is traditionally a time of industrial action, and much of it is resolved swiftly. The unions' enthusiasm for strikes may be less a measure of their members' fury than a reflection of the legacy of labor militancy left by the struggle against apartheid.

Most significantly, the strikes have attracted little public support. State workers are paid more generously than their peers in the private sector, and their inefficiency and corruption, resulting in poor delivery of services, have been the cause of far more serious explosions of disorder in the past two years. The change from rebel to ruler has been a protracted and difficult one for many African governments since independence — and some, notably Zimbabwe, remain stuck in the language and dynamics of the past. There is some irony in the fact that those so often the focus of public complaints are starting their own round of protests. But there is also progress in the dwindling sympathy their actions now elicit from the South African government.