Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Africa's Summer of Strikes

Africa's summer of strikes

Many wonder if the Arab Spring will reach Africa, but what people should really be watching is the spread of strikes across the continent in response to rising costs, inequality, and government dissatisfaction.

By Alex Thurston, Guest blogger
Christian Science Monitor
posted July 19, 2011 at 1:01 pm EDT

In recent months, there’s been a lot of talk about whether the “Arab spring” would spread to sub-Saharan Africa. In some ways, it did – there were serious protests in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda, and elsewhere, and the Arab spring inspired a number of activists to question the legitimacy of incumbents. In some days, it did not – no leaders have (yet) fallen, and no pan-African, anti-incumbent wave has (yet) reshaped the politics of the whole continent.

Now it’s summer, and I’m wondering whether it’s time to start talking about a wave of strikes, rather than a wave of protests. Although many African economies are experiencing rapid growth, problems like rising food and fuel costs, economic inequality, and dissatisfaction with government taxes and other policies are driving workers to shut down businesses and take to the streets.

Last week, I wrote about strikes in Uganda by traders and taxi drivers (teachers have since threatened to strike as well). This week, Nigerian workers were preparing a national strike from Wednesday to Friday over a non-implemented minimum wage increase – though a last-minute promise by governors to pay the wage may avert the strike.

South Africa (where it is winter, of course), is also facing major strikes:

Tens of thousands of workers ended a two-week pay strike in the South African steel and engineering sector on Sunday while petroleum workers plan to widen a week-long walkout that left hundreds of the nation’s fuel pumps dry, union leaders said.

Steel workers accepted a 10 percent wage rise from the employers’ body, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa had initially demanded a 13 percent increase while SEIFSA’s original offer was a 7 percent rise.

Meanwhile, the pay strike in the domestic petroleum sector is expected to widen from Monday after trade union Solidarity said on Sunday its mostly skilled members at petrochemical group Sasol will join the industrial action that left hundreds of fuel pumps dry.

The causes and the intensity of the strikes taking place in Africa vary, but I think there is something of a trend, and I think it’s worth watching. With many African economies under pressure, especially from inflation, we may see more strikes soon. And the next few days will be an important moment for Nigeria in particular, as that country’s unions decide whether the governors’ promise is sufficient or not.

– Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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