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South African Unions Call for Anti-Privatization Strike - 2001-08-28

South Africa's affiliation of trade unions, the Congress of South African Trade Unions has called a two-day national strike to begin Wednesday to protest privatization of state-owned companies. The move has highlighted the differences in the so-called tri-partite alliance of the unions, the ruling African National Congress, and the South African Communist Party.

Officials of the Congress of South African Trade Unions say they expect widespread support for the nation-wide anti-privatization strike.

National Union of Mineworkers Secretary General Gwede Mantashe expects four-million workers to down their tools for two-days. "We are expecting all sectors to come up and support this strike and we are estimating a total of about four-million workers to be in these rallies, the marches tomorrow, and on Thursday," he said.

The strike has infuriated the government ministers, who have expressed outrage that is timed for the eve of the World Conference against Racism, which South Africa is hosting.

During the past week, several senior ministers have delivered a salvo of angry denunciations of the action, which have drawn equally heated responses from COSATU officials. Public Enterprises minister Jeff Radebe said COSATU officials do not fully understand the consequences of the planned strike. "Some of the economic analysts this morning were saying the loss of production for this two-day strike will cost the economy more than $125 million," he said. "I do not think that the COSATU leadership look at the bigger picture what harm these actions are doing to the South African economy."

South African President Thabo Mbeki also stepped into the fray and, without naming them, compared his trade union partners to Louis Botha, an early 20th century Afrikaner leader who he said tried to warn black South Africans away from the ANC, known then as the Native Congress. President Mbeki, writing in the weekly online ANC newsletter, accused COSATU and its affiliates of turning their back on what he called the long-standing morality of the anti-apartheid movement.

At the center of the storm are government plans to privatize or acquire equity-partners for several state-owned companies, including the national telecommunications company known as Telkom.

The unions object on several grounds, but of greatest concern to its affiliates is the potential for job losses. Analysts point out that many of the jobs have already been lost as the government has modernized and streamlined the companies in preparation for privatization.

The dispute highlights differences in the so-called tripartite alliance between the unions, the ruling African National Congress, and the South African Communist Party. The differences are becoming more defined as the ANC moves ever further from being a liberation organization and settles more and more into its role as a ruling party.

Despite the public confrontations, most South African analysts say the alliance is unlikely to split in the foreseeable future.