Zuma under fire as unions turn up heat on corruption

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Johannesburg - South Africa’s biggest labour organisation urged workers to strike on Wednesday to protest against what it called “the cancer of corruption” spreading among business and government leaders and threatening the nation’s democracy under President Jacob Zuma.

The action is the boldest step yet by the Congress of South African Trade Unions to pile pressure on Zuma, whom it helped to win control of the ruling African National Congress in 2007 and then turned against after he fired Pravin Gordhan as finance minister in March. That move prompted S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings to downgrade the nation’s credit assessment to junk.

“This strike is about sending a message to both government and private sector that as workers and citizens we are tired of corruption,” Bheki Ntshalintshali, general secretary of the 1.7-million-member Cosatu, told reporters in Johannesburg on Tuesday. 

At least 13 protests will be staged across the nine provinces, with demonstrators voicing their grievances and bringing criminal charges against corrupt officials, the confederation said.

The labour action will place further pressure on Africa’s most industrialised economy, which the central bank expects to expand 0.6% this year. It may also further dent business confidence, which fell to its lowest level in more than three decades last month.

Cosatu is taking to the streets just three months before the ANC is scheduled to elect a new leader to replace Zuma, 75. It’s backing Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to replace Zuma when he steps down as ANC leader in December, while the president’s favoured successor is  Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife and former chairperson of the African Union Commission.

Communist support

The strike has the support of the South African Communist Party, which like Cosatu is a member of the country’s ANC-led ruling coalition. The protesters aim to show Zuma, who’s been implicated in a succession of scandals, that they want him to quit, according to Solly Mapaila, the party’s deputy secretary.

“He is at the centre of this corruption that is taking place in government,” Mapaila said. “He is the buffer, the main protector, the main distributor, the main person who makes it possible."

Zuma has faced almost daily reports of new details on his friendship with the Gupta family and its alleged influence over his administration which is known locally as “state capture”.

The scandal has affected global companies such as accountants KPMG and consultancy McKinsey, which have been implicated in facilitating, being party to or turning a blind eye to their deals. Public relations firm Bell Pottinger collapsed after it was found to have mounted a racially divisive campaign while working for the Guptas. Zuma and the Guptas deny wrongdoing.

Phumla Williams, the acting director-general of the Government Communication and Information System, didn’t answer calls to her mobile phone or respond to a message seeking comment.

Business Unity South Africa urged employers to allow workers to participate in the protest on a no-work, no-pay basis and said they can’t be dismissed for taking part unless they’re employed in essential services.

“Busa is not endorsing protest action by Cosatu, although it supports the call against state capture and corruption,” Tanya Cohen, the business lobby group’s chief executive officer, said by email.

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