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Workers take to the streets in South Africa

The economic downturn, along with unmet expectations, fuels strike season.

South African strikers demonstrate outside the offices of paper producer Sappi in downtown Johannesburg. The Sappi strike is one of a wave of recent labor actions in South Africa as workers seek pay increases to offset high food prices. (Nicolas Brulliard/GlobalPost)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Thousands of municipal workers marched through downtown Johannesburg this week to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

Workers carried the occasional stick or truncheon and protesters vented their frustration at garbage cans, throwing their contents on streets and public parks, as mounted police watched for signs of more serious violence.

Jane Dlomo, a 35-year-old gardener at Johannesburg’s zoo, said she spends more than $4 every day just to get to work. With food prices skyrocketing, a significant wage increase is a necessity, she said. “It’s very painful,” Dlomo said. “That is why we have to strike.”

A few hundred yards away, several dozen workers in the paper industry were picketing outside the offices of Sappi, a major paper producer. The numbers were smaller, but the demands were much the same.

“Management continue to give to give themselves huge bonuses despite the fact that workers are earning very low wages,” said Michael Mokoana, a union official present at the strike. ”It really doesn’t make sense to us.”

South Africa has been rocked by a wave of strikes. Workers across many sectors, from mining and health care to telecommunications, have walked off their jobs in recent weeks. It is strike season in South Africa, as wage negotiations typically take place at this time of the year. This year the context for the labor actions is much different.

A strike by construction workers threatened preparations for the World Cup soccer tournament, just one year away. In July they settled for pay increases of 12 percent.

South Africa, Africa’s largest economy, has entered its first recession in 17 years, and unemployment has climbed to 23.6 percent. At the same time, inflation remains stubbornly high at 6.9 percent, putting the working class in a financial bind.

While workers' money is getting scarce, their expectations are on the rise. In April, Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency in large part thanks to the support of the unemployed and blue-collar workers. Zuma, himself a man of humble origins, is perceived as more receptive to the plight of the poor than his predecessor, the aloof Thabo Mbeki.

Flexing its muscles, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), a member of the ruling tripartite alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, has grown more vocal recently, trying to block the sale of a government-owned telecommunications unit and calling for the replacement of the reserve bank governor.

The ANC has shown signs of losing patience with the demands of its labor partners but the unions are nonetheless determined to get something in return for their unwavering support of Zuma and the ANC ticket, said Jonathan Yudelowitz, a leadership expert with years of experience in industrial relations.