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South Africa: Civil servants strike

Government employees close schools, hospitals and challenge President Jacob Zuma and ANC.

The strike also comes at a sensitive time, when opposition to President Jacob Zuma's government has grown, giving the work stoppage deeper political implications.

Zwelenzima Vavi, the head of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is pushing the ANC government to implement more socialist policies to improve the lives of workers. He has also called for the government to crack down on corruption and cronyism.

Cosatu is a key supporter of the ANC party along with the South African Communist Party. But both the labor unions and the Communist Party are becoming increasingly angry with the ANC's pro-business policies.

Cosatu is arguably the most powerful organization in the country and boasts a membership of more than 2 million. Vavi is at loggerheads with alliance partner the ANC over economic policy, media regulation and what some have called "the soul of the nation."

Within this context, the strike is a show of power by Cosatu ahead of the ANC General Conference starting on September 20th.

"We will not make the mistake of voting into power our worst political butchers," said Vavi recently.

"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," Vavi said recently, reported the AFP news agency.

He has publicly lambasted Zuma for allowing corruption, especially in high profile cases of government ministers and his son Duduzane, who has reportedly amassed a fortune. Such criticism of the ANC by a trade union leader is a public break that last surfaced in 2001.

The test of whether or not the trade unions will continue to support the ANC may come later in September at the party's National General Council. Without the support of Cosatu the ANC will struggle to lead to country.

The more likely scenario, according to local experts, is that Cosatu may try to force the ANC to change its direction. This may mean eventually replacing Zuma with his short-term predecessor, Kgalema Motlanthe, who is seen as above the fray, uncorrupt, and much more reliable as a leader by both business and labor.

The strike may ultimately decide more than the take home pay of a teacher or nurse. Less than a cry for more money, social commentators suggest the strike's greater implications are about what kind of country South Africa's black majority wants and who they want to lead it.