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South Africans strike against low wages

South Africa's ruling party leader Jacob Zuma speaks at a press conference in Johannesburg on April 21, 2009, one day ahead of general elections

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: South Africa's unemployment rate is officially over 23 percent. The country has already shed almost 200,000 jobs this year due to the financial crisis, yet many of those who are working are dissatisfied. Africa's biggest economy has been rattled by a series of strikes, just as it enters its first recession in years. As Gretchen Wilson explains from Johannesburg, the wave of unrest has to do with a shift in the country's political administration as much as the economic hard times.


Gretchen Wilson: Construction workers in hard hats and overalls demonstrate in the streets of Johannesburg, demanding double-digit wage increases.

Thirty-four-year-old Bulelani Nqaza is a carpenter. Last week, he was one of 70,000 laborers who downed tools at stadiums being built for the soccer World Cup. He makes about $10 a day, but says he needs more money to support his family.

Bulelani Nqaza: I need the money because I have children, I support children at school. But this money that I got here, nothing can I do with it.

Construction workers got a 12 percent pay hike. And they're not alone in resorting to industrial action. In the past few months, there's hardly a sector here that hasn't gone on strike or threatened to do so. Teachers, gold miners, municipal workers, television employees.

South Africa's new president, Jacob Zuma, took office in May. He ran on a populist platform, backed by the country's labor unions and Communist Party.

Dale McKinley is a political analyst in Johannesburg:

Dale McKinley: Zuma has risen on a ticket of a promise of reducing inequality and reducing poverty for the vast majority of Black South Africans.

Now, many workers want Zuma to pressure public and private sector employers to raise wages. Consumer inflation is at 8 percent. Food and electricity prices are up as much as a third from last year.

Zuma now has to find a balance between fiscal discipline and labor's pent-up demands.

Makhului Lukhele: This administration came into a ship which was already full of water.

Makhului Lukhele is an orthopaedic surgeon with the South African Medical Association. He says doctors in the public health system have had grievances for years, but they often went ignored by Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Last month, thousands of doctors walked out of government hospitals in a wildcat strike.

Lukhele: It takes a lot of frustration. It's painful for a doctor to do that.

The wave of industrial action isn't over -- 65,000 workers in the petroleum, paper and chemical sectors just said they plan to strike over pay. And eyes are on South Africa's new president to see whether he will blink.

In Johannesburg, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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