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Zuma wades into S. Africa labour crisis

South African President Jacob Zuma summons business and union leaders in bid to reach compromise solution to country's labour crisis

AFP , Wednesday 17 Oct 2012
South Africa
Mineworkers take part in a march outside the Anglo American mine in South Africa's North West Province, on 12 September (Photo: Reuters)

President Jacob Zuma waded in to South Africa's simmering labour crisis on Wednesday, corralling business and labour leaders for a meeting to end months of unrest and bloodshed that threaten to derail the nation's economy.

Eviscerated by critics for failing to stop months of roiling strikes that have often spilled over into deadly violence, Zuma summoned leaders to government headquarters in Pretoria to press-gang them into action.

The meeting was expected to result in a call to limit executive pay -- a show of solidarity with miners demanding higher wages -- among other measures, according to sources who took part in preliminary talks last week.

According to Zuma's office, the talks will tackle a plethora of economic and social issues that have come to the fore since tens of thousands of workers downed tools.

Participants will discuss challenges posed by "slowing global growth, the industrial relations environment in the country, and the need to speed up the fight against poverty, inequality as well as unemployment."

But it is unclear if the meeting will be a game changer -- enough to end a crisis that has spread like wildfire across the country's industrial heartland and threatened to cripple already meagre growth.

According to political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki, the police's killing of 34 platinum miners at Marikana in August has destroyed the government's credibility as an honest broker and miners are unlikely to heed Zuma's entreaties.

"They are in no position to mediate," said Mbeki, who is also the younger brother of former South African president Thabo Mbeki. "They should never have used force against the miners, that hardened the position of the workers."

"The government has been incredibly casual and callous about an industry that is important to millions of South Africans."

Until now Zuma has appeared reluctant to involve himself in the crisis.

Industrial relations are a subject fraught with political and economic dangers for Zuma, whose fate hangs on balancing policies that appeal to investors as well as leftists, communists and trade unionists within his ruling coalition.

"The government is a huge beneficiary of the mining industry in South Africa in terms of the taxes that it gets from the mining industry," said Mbeki. "It sees itself losing taxes and losing hard currency earnings."

But with two months until a party conference that could see him face a leadership challenge that could oust him from office, the political stakes could not be higher.

"It now challenges him personally because he wants to go to the African National Congress conference in Mangaung in December with a clean report," said Joe Mavuso, an independent analyst

"No president wants to lead a country that is bleeding economically otherwise it speaks ill of him."

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