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Mandela Works to Avoid Confrontation With Labor

South African union pulls back from threats to strike over wages, but reaffirms rights of workers

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SOUTH African President Nelson Mandela, facing the most serious challenge to his leadership since he was inaugurated three months ago, intervened over the weekend to prevent escalating labor unrest from developing into a damaging confrontation between his government and its former trade union allies.

Mr. Mandela, who led a top-level delegation of the African National Congress (ANC) in talks with union leaders on Saturday, appealed to workers and employers to use the collective bargaining system to resolve current labor unrest.

``Industrial peace in our country is extremely important,'' he said. Workers are entitled to high expectations, but they also have a responsibility to fulfill, he added.

Strikes delayed

The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions, the major black union federation that was closely aligned to the ANC in its anti-apartheid struggle, pulled back from earlier threats to hold a general strike on Aug. 8 if the wage disputes had not been resolved. But COSATU reaffirmed the right of workers to strike and rejected any attempts to portray the current labor disputes as a crisis.

During the past month, more than 50,000 workers in the store chain, catering, and municipal sectors have resorted to strikes in pursuit of better wages and working conditions.

The strikes followed deadlocks in annual wage negotiations. They have highlighted the division between the ANC in government - pushing for a social accord between labor, government, and the unions - and its left-wing allies outside government striving to meet black expectations following the country's first democratic elections in April.

The strikes and protests have led to several violent confrontations between workers and police. Mandela initially criticized the police for overreacting but later chided strikers who used violence and intimidation to achieve their goals.

Up to 120,000 metalworkers and some 385,000 mine workers - the two largest unionized sectors - are also in the final stages of wage negotiations. Some 80,000 steelworkers held a vote over the weekend and were due to decide today about strike action.

The ANC held a summit here over the weekend to define the relationship between ANC members in government and those outside.

ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa, a former leader of the powerful mine worker's union who turned down a Cabinet post, is seen as the link between these two ANC groups.

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