Pressure on Zuma mounts amid massive strike (28.07.09)

Pressure on Zuma mounts amid massive strike (28.07.09)

By Apoorva Prasad

South African President Jacob Zuma hasn't even been in office for 100 days, but he's already facing a serious challenge to his tenure. Zuma's voter base has taken to the streets to protest against unemployment and a lack of basic services.

South Africa's winter of discontent has chilled President Jacob Zuma's newly inaugurated government. Following last week's violent township protests, thousands of government workers went on strike Monday, grinding major cities such as Johannesburg to a virtual halt. Zuma's administration, which swept to victory with promises of employment and improved basic services, has received a reality check.

On the face of it, Monday's strike is unrelated to last week's protests where demonstrators in some of South Africa's most impoverished townships rioted, calling for basic services such as housing, water supplies and electricity, as well as jobs.

The municipal workers striking this week, on the other hand, are demanding higher wages, citing high prices in a recession and inflation-hit economy. Dale Forbes, a representative for the South Africans Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) told AFP, "It's a wage dispute. We've been negotiating since May and deadlock has been reached."

But according to Hugo van der Merwe of the Cape Town-based CSVR (Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation), the two seemingly disparate events are linked to the "deep unhappiness about the levels of inequality between the rich and poor in South Africa"

President Jacob Zuma won South Africa's April elections on populist promises and left-leaning union backing. The thousands of poor South Africans living in townships expected employment opportunities to improve and the provision of basic services.

But the same voters who propelled Zuma to power believe he has not met his promises so far. "After 15 years of democracy, people are quite despondent," says van der Merwe.

Recession hits political promises

Zuma's campaign promises are now sounding hollow, with South Africa's economy badly affected by the global recession.

The country is facing its worst economic recession since apartheid. Officially, the country has a 23.5 percent unemployment rate, but many say that in reality it is much higher. About 43 percent of South Africans live on less than two dollars a day, and there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor.

Workers have been hit by rising food and fuel prices, which jumped when inflation spiked to 13.7 percent in 2008. The worst hit are "workers who receive the lowest levels of pay – 3000 to 3800 [rand, about 300 euros]," says van der Merwe.

Zuma has urged all parties to negotiate and resolve the wage issue, while he frantically backpedals on his election employment promises. The president has said that citizens will have to wait for the economy to recover, and clarified that he had actually promised to create "opportunities" for "people to survive in the short term".

A history of violence

In 2008, impoverished residents of South Africa's townships attacked immigrants from other parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe and Malawi. The wave of xenophobic violence resulted in 70 dead in a matter of weeks.

There have also been sporadic incidents of violence against foreigners this year, according to van der Merwe.

A repeat of those deaths could dent South Africa's international image before it hosts football's FIFA World Cup next year.

Zuma has already warned protesters, saying that the police would "respond with sensitivity" if protests were lawful, but would "take swift action" against more violence.

In France 24.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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