SA must close rich-poor gap - Zuma
Midrand - South Africa must do more to close the gap between rich and poor, President Jacob Zuma said on Monday at a congress of union allies who want him to take tougher action against unemployment and poverty.
Union federation Cosatu was instrumental in helping Zuma to power in April, but unionists have been unable to get him to shift from policies they condemn as too pro-business and have gone head to head with him over a series of pay strikes.
Zuma assured Cosatu, which has 1.9 million members, that creating jobs and improving the lives of the poor were the policy priorities of the ruling ANC.
"The ANC must now use its victory and control of state power to improve the quality of life of the poor and marginalised," Zuma said, without promising specific action.
Thousands of union members attended Cosatu's four-day annual conference. The group wants economic policies it says will bring jobs and improve the lives of millions of black South Africans still living in poverty 15 years after apartheid ended.
As well as more spending, they seek an end to inflation targeting by the central bank, which they blame for sharp interest rate increases last year. They also demand a seat on the bank board and want it to come under full state control.
Zuma said the fact that South Africa was in its first recession in 17 years should not make the ruling party and its allies shift from their goals.
"We will make a difference in the lives of our people if we make drastic improvements in health, education, rural development, the fight against crime and the creation of decent work, our key priorities," Zuma said.
But he condemned lawlessness seen during recent strikes and protests over slow delivery of basic services like electricity and water in townships.
"Violent strikes violate other people's right of association and undermine the cause of workers".
Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini told the congress that the economic crisis was not of workers' making.
"Workers therefore should not be made ... to bear the brunt," he said.
Analysts said while Zuma was likely to be open to debate at the congress, Cosatu would not dictate his policy.
"I doubt Zuma is frightened by the unions," said Sanusha Naidu, a political analyst at think-tank FAHAMU.
In the draft resolutions, Cosatu also called for a review of the black economic empowerment (BEE) policy, saying "the black bourgeoisie benefits on the sweat of workers through BEE companies".
In order to right apartheid wrongs and give blacks a stake in the economy, South Africa requires firms to meet quotas on black ownership, employment and procurement to offset racism and stimulate the economy by creating a black middle class.
But several deals have collapsed as the global crisis has caused the value of shares used as collateral to fall and critics argue the drive has enriched a small black elite while doing little to boost the economy.