Is strike beginning of the end for Zuma?

Jacob Zuma Jacob Zuma was hailed as the "people's president" in South Africa

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Low-paid South Africans who last year campaigned for Jacob Zuma as the "people's president" now say he has betrayed them.

After falling out with the unions, one of his main support bases, the soft-spoken man with a vibrant and infectious personality - and dance moves to boot - could struggle to win a second term, especially as his relationship with the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League is also under strain.

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These are some of the people who brought Zuma to power. As this strike goes on, the same people are potentially talking about getting Zuma out”

End Quote Author William Gumede

After the World Cup, South Africa was seen as an international success story.

But that reputation is rapidly being eroded by a president criticised as indecisive on the country's main problems - widespread poverty, unemployment and economic inequalities.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was one of the key players in the "Zuma for president" campaign but is now locked in a bitter dispute with his government and perhaps Mr Zuma himself.

"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," the head of the Cosatu trade union federation Zwelinzima Vavi told a meeting recently, reports AFP news agency.

'Tipping point'

With some one million public sector workers about to enter their third week on strike and as Cosatu threatened to bring the entire economy to a standstill by calling other sectors to join the stoppage, Mr Zuma has told his minister to negotiate.

Public workers want an 8.6% wage increase, while the government has been standing firm on its offer of 7%.

But there are also deep policy divisions and critics of Mr Zuma in the unions want him to:

  • Scrap the labour brokering system which bypasses unions pay negotiations
  • Move faster to implement a national insurance health plan
  • Take firm action against corrupt individuals who use the government for personal enrichment.

"Zuma has wanted to please everybody but in this kind of situation you can't please everybody. If he chooses one side, then he loses the other. The strike could be a tipping point," author William Gumede told South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper.

The ANC Youth League, previously seen as another pillar of support for Mr Zuma, has even more radical policy demands:

  • Nationalise the country's mines
  • Speed up the redistribution of white-owned land to the black majority
  • Transfer more business into black ownership.

After being criticised for indulging the ruling party youth league leader Julius Malema, Mr Zuma was finally moved to rebuke him after the young firebrand praised Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe while on a trip to Harare earlier this year.

In response, Mr Malema, who once vowed to "kill for Zuma" is now turning his vitriol against the president, who earlier this year went on a state visit to the UK.

"Now that you are given power by the people of South Africa, you still go to the Queen [of England] and behave like you don't have power from the peopleā€¦ You are saying that it will remain the same as during the colonial regime," he said, reports the Mail and Guardian.


The strike has had a crippling affect on schools and hospitals, leaving health facilities having to function with skeleton staff, military aid and ordinary South Africans volunteering to care for patients.

Until now, Mr Zuma had not said much about the strike, instead continuing with his pre-planned presidential duties - a visit to China aimed at boosting trade.

Striking South African workers protest in Soweto Striking teachers send a message to President Zuma in Soweto

This further alienated his supporters.

"What is Zuma doing in China while we struggle?" some union members chanted during nationwide marches last week.

Some believe his handling of the strike has deeply damaged the ruling ANC's long-standing alliance with the left.

"These are some of the people who brought Zuma to power. As this strike goes on, the same people are potentially talking about getting Zuma out," Mr Gumede said.

But Mr Zuma has also been under pressure not to destroy Africa's strongest economy.

Meeting the demands of his union and left-wing backers would have alarmed the markets and the business community, especially in 2009 when the global financial crisis pushed it into recession for the first time since the ANC came to power in 1994.

And in terms of alleviating poverty, his ministers have argued that raising pay for those with jobs would mean less money to potentially create work and reduce the rate of unemployment, currently more than 25%.

Some analysts say his biggest challenge is his need to appease the conflicting interests in the broad alliance which propelled him to power.

He simply owes too many favours to too many people.

"He's somewhat of a populist and plays his cards close to his chest but I believe this is about power," Professor Sheila Meintjes from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg told the BBC.

"I don't believe Mr Zuma has the capability to offer the kind of leadership needed to steer the country beyond its current challenges," she said.

Mr Zuma's political obituary has already been written on several occasions but he will need all his survival instincts to see off this latest challenge - and emerge with a victory jig from the major ANC policy conference in three weeks' time.

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