Thousands Of Workers Strike In South Africa

In South Africa, there's a growing rivalry between the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, and the ruling African National Congress. COSATU has long been a supporter, but it's tired of the Congress failing to deliver on promises for nearly 20 years.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. In South Africa last week, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. It was a one-day workers' strike, one of the largest protests since the end of Apartheid. The strike, organized by South African unions, included 32 cities that caused large sectors of the economy to shut down.

As Anders Kelto reports, protesters were demanding the government do more to help South Africa's poor and working class.

ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: Under a scorching afternoon sun, a sea of people marches through the streets of Cape Town. They wear red shirts and hold banners supporting COSATU, the largest workers' union in South Africa.

FREIDA USIZIN: We demand a social ban for labor brokers.

KELTO: Freida Usizin(ph), a COSATU leader, says they're here to demand an end to labor brokers, companies that offer short-term workers to businesses so those businesses don't have to hire full time employees. The practice has existed in South Africa for years, but now claims a larger share of the workforce than ever before. She said low-wage work without benefits reminds many of Apartheid.

Becky Lagobo(ph), a local textile worker, says he gave up a day's wages to attend today's strike. He's protesting new government toll roads, which he says will hit working class people like him hardest.

BECKY LAGOBO: The majority of the people will be affected (unintelligible) because those are the majority who you stand for.

KELTO: In Johannesburg, police estimated the crowd at more than 50,000. COSATU's general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, said that if toll roads open as planned, workers will block the highways. And he said the strike was only the beginning of COSATU's actions.

ZWELINZIMA VAVI: We've come here to fire the first warning shots.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

VAVI: And, in our chamber there is still a lot of bullets.

KELTO: Protests over a lack of water and electricity are common in South Africa, but this strike was bigger than anything South Africa had seen in a long time. Matuma Letsoalo, a political analyst for the Mail & Guardian newspaper, says it sent a clear message to President Jacob Zuma and his ruling political party, the African National Congress.

MATUMA LETSOALO: The message was never underestimate the power of the workers.

KELTO: Five years ago, Zuma rose to power on the backs of unions. He presented himself as a champion of workers' rights and promised to lift millions out of poverty, but Letsoalo says that, after five years of Zuma and nearly two decades of ANC rule, little has changed.

LETSOALO: Unemployment is high, poverty is worsening, the government is being accused of not delivering services to the poor.

KELTO: The ANC government is also struggling to find a balance between workers' demands and economic growth. Officials fear that feeding too much power to the unions could scare off foreign investors who are seen as vital to South Africa's economy.

But political analyst Matuma Letsoalo says unions aren't buying that argument. They're trying to force the ANC to elect more radical leaders. In a written statement, the ANC said it respected the workers' right to strike, but was disappointed in the comments of COSATU leaders who accused the ruling party of being unsympathetic. It also said steps were being taken to ensure that new toll roads don't hurt the poor.

But whether or not the ANC can repair its damaged relationship with workers remains to be seen. For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto in Cape Town, South Africa.

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