South African President Jacob Zuma took a tough line on unions on Tuesday, saying there was no ”pandering” to labour after the threat of a strike by workers at Eskom appeared to fade.
Unions which helped Zuma rise to power want him to spend more on the poor, a policy that would be economically risky during the country’s first recession since 1992.
His remarks during a dial-in show on Metro FM radio appeared aimed at easing concerns that he would change economic policies to please organised labour.
”There is no pandering to the unions,” said Zuma.
Most workers at Eskom appear ready to accept a pay offer from the utility that would avert a potentially crippling strike, union officials said.
Asked if he felt indebted to unions, Zuma said: ”Not at all.”
The main union involved in talks said that about 60% of the votes counted so far from its ballot were in favour of Eskom’s 10,5% wage offer. One of the other unions gave a similar estimate for its own vote count.
But both unions said acceptance was on condition that a firmer deal for a housing allowance be reached at a meeting with Eskom on Wednesday. The unions expect a final tally of votes before the meeting starts.
The threat of power cuts at mines helped drive up the price of platinum last week and to push the rand to a three-week low as investors feared power cuts would harm an economy in recession.
”So far 60% say we should accept the offer and not go on strike, even though we do not have responses from two key areas,” National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) chief negotiator Paris Mashego told Reuters.
”As leaders we are pushing for acceptance of the offer.”
He said there would be no strike if 80% of voting members accepted the offer.
While Zuma reiterated that helping the poor would be a priority, he kept a strong line on unions, saying it was strike season in South Africa and pay disputes were not unusual.
”It’s just a question of normal, very hard kind of negotiations that take place,” he said.
Unions have also pressed for deeper interest rate cuts.
The NUM, which has about 16,000 members at Eskom, nearly half the utility’s employees, as well as smaller unions Solidarity and the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) were originally pushing for a 14 percent pay rise — about double the inflation rate — and more for a housing allowance.
Mashego said members want a deal to settle the housing issue by November this year, not February as proposed by Eskom.
Bennie Blignaut, Solidarity’s head negotiator at Eskom, said so far about 60% of its 5 000 members were also in favour of accepting the utility’s offer.
The metalworker’s union, Numsa, said it would have a clearer picture by early on Wednesday.
A power strike would be a challenge to Zuma’s authority as he tries to lead South Africa through the recession and defuse anger in poor townships.
A strike at Eskom would be the latest in a wave of industrial action that has led to above-inflation settlements, including agreements in the gold and coal industries.
The government also awarded a 13% wage increase to council workers last week, nearly double the inflation rate of 6,9% for June, to end a five-day strike.
Eskom generates 95% of South Africa’s electricity and 45 percent of Africa’s power output.
Blackouts early last year temporarily crippled mines, metal smelters and manufacturing, denting economic growth in South Africa, by far the world’s biggest platinum producer and also a major gold supplier.
Platinum traded at around $1 240 an ounce on Tuesday after rising as high as $1 290 an ounce last week. – Reuters