, JOHANNESBURG, Aug 25 – South Africa\’s week-long public service strike has strained President Jacob Zuma\’s ties with leftist allies who helped propel him to power, intensifying debate on jobs and economic policy.
The strike by more than one million public workers has shuttered schools and left hospitals with skeleton staffs, with the military and ordinary volunteers called in to keep health services running.
Workers show no sign of letting up in their demands for an 8.6 percent wage increase, more than double the rate of inflation, over the government offer for seven percent.
For Zuma, the wage dispute is particularly thorny.
The strike is backed by the main labour alliance Cosatu, which supported his rise to the presidency and is part of the governing alliance with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party.
But since out-manoeuvring former president Thabo Mbeki from the ANC leadership in 2007 at a party conference in the town of Polokwane, Zuma has brought little change to the former leader\’s pro-business policies, a fact that grates the unions.
"Of course the strike is political. It is workers making political statements," Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi told a union meeting last week.
"Two years after Polokwane, we have nothing to celebrate. We lost more than 1.1 million jobs. As a result, 5.5 million South Africans have been pushed into poverty."
Cosatu has also lashed out at communist party boss Blade Nzimande, accusing him of ignoring the plight of the poor since joining Zuma\’s cabinet. The communist party replied that the unions were whining like "hungry babies".
"The alliance is extremely fractious. There\’s a battle for supremacy within the alliance," said Daniel Silke, an independent political analyst.
"It\’s an issue about future economic policy in the country. We are seeing increasing debate within the ANC about how best to secure higher growth, how best to secure higher employment."
South Africa\’s official unemployment rate is at 25.3 percent but the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said last month that a high number of discouraged job seekers not reflected in the official data, meaning the number could be more than 30 percent.
Among black youths, the rate is 50 percent, according to the OECD.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan says government wants to focus on creating new jobs, especially for the youth, rather than handing big raises to current workers.
To create enough jobs to dent unemployment, Gordhan says South Africa needs 7.0 percent annual growth for the next two decades. The rate in the second quarter was 3.2 percent, despite a boost from the football World Cup.
"Unemployment remains our greatest political and economic risk going forward," said labour market analyst Andrew Levy.
Cosatu argues that higher wages are the best way to close the gaping divide between rich and poor in South Africa, one of the world\’s least equal societies.
But government has threatened to implement its wage offer unilaterally, saying the cost of meeting union demands would force painful budget cuts in a country already struggling to provide basic services.
If Zuma alienates organised labour, Levy said he could risk losing a key support base with jockeying already underway to influence the ANC\’s next leadership conference in 2012.
"Whether or not the unions would be sufficient to turn that vote somewhere else — where would it go? There\’s no contender in the wings," said Levy.
"We still have to see a vehicle formed to convey that political dissent."