24 Apr

Wages Impasse Puts South African President Ramaphosa in a Bind

A standoff between South Africa’s government and unions representing its 1.3 million workers over pay puts President Cyril Ramaphosa in a jam.

While his administration has pledged to stick to its deficit targets and expenditure ceilings — a tall order if it buckles to demands for increases of as much as 12 percent — he can ill afford to alienate the unions ahead of next year’s elections or risk strikes that would curb growth.

He’s also indebted to the unions for backing his campaign to win control of the ruling party last year, a victory that set the stage for him to replace Jacob Zuma.

“He is in a Catch-22,” Sethulego Matebesi, a political analyst at the University of the Free State in the central city of Bloemfontein, said by phone. “The unions are not going to buy into the argument that the government can’t afford the increases they want.”

The wage talks have already dragged on for more than seven months. The eight unions that represent teachers, nurses and other state workers have warned they won’t tolerate the government’s “delaying tactics” much longer.

“There is an inadequate offer on the table,” the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor group, said in a statement. “We caution government against creating an environment that will force workers to consider withdrawing their labor and embark on what will be a calamitous strike.”

Civil servants last staged a strike in 2010 that dragged on for three weeks before they were awarded 7.5 percent raises. Three-year settlements were reached in 2012 and 2015 that increased wages by 7 percent in the first year and inflation plus 1 percentage point for the next two years. South Africa’s inflation rate fell to a seven-year low of 3.8 percent in March.

While wage talks were due to resume on Tuesday, the government requested a delay until May 3, saying it needed more time to consult. The current pay deal expired at the end of March and any increases will be backdated.

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