This week’s labor strikes by public-employees in South Africa are the first big test of Jacob Zuma’s presidency in South Africa. His vote totals were lifted by union workers who now want large pay increases in a stagnant economy. If Zuma says no, he runs the risk of heading down the same path as his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who choose fiscal discipline over populist policies. Zuma will pay a pay in social unrest if he chooses the same path as Mbeki. South Africa is deeply divided between haves and have-nots. Mbeki was tossed out of office early partly because of growing resentments of have-nots who feel the ruling African National Congress, rhetoric notwithstanding, cannot act on behalf of ordinary people. Zuma’s political base consists of the very people who want government to do more on their behalf whether public finances are adversely effected or not. Zuma must heed their call, if only to make his break with Mbeki years clear.
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