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South Africa, Unions Vie as Friendly Foes

SOUTH Africa's labor minister uses Marxist terminology to refer to the ''class struggle'' of ''comrades'' in the labor unions. Meanwhile, union bosses threaten strikes over job cuts - but generally find solutions by talking it out instead.

Things are cozy in South Africa between President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress government and black-dominated trade unions, which helped the ANC ride into power in the first all-race democratic elections in 1994.

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Back when the ANC was a banned liberation movement, the unions were a major source of political resistance to white-minority rule. Now that the struggle against apartheid is over, and the ANC is in control of the government, the close relationship between unions and the ANC is being strained.

But with a rare political maturity and pragmatism, both sides are choosing consultation over confrontation. ''We must work with the ANC, not for old time's sake, but because we agree that the only force capable of bringing change is the alliance,'' said Sam Shilowa, leader of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), in a recent interview. ''We may oppose policies like privatization, but we still need a sympathetic government, and we are fighting for policies that will keep the ANC in power.''

For his part, Labor Minister Tito Mboweni sprinkles his sentences with words like ''partnership'' when he describes the ANC's relationship with COSATU. ''The unions here play a constructive role,'' Mr. Mboweni said.

This is not to say that all is rosy. Tensions between the ANC and COSATU are increasing as the young government, hungry for foreign investment and economic growth, pursues policies unpopular at a time of 40 percent unemployment such as privatizing government industries and putting efficiency over saving jobs.

Nonetheless, strike activity fell sharply last year from the previous year. New legislation drawn up last year that provides for businesses, government, and unions to consult to resolve problems has largely been a success. COSATU often throws its support behind the ANC when the party bargains with other political parties in Parliament and in the Constitutional Assembly, which is writing a new national constitution.

It is hard to imagine an adversarial relationship emerging such as in France, where a paralyzing strike in December forced the government to drop plans to restructure the social security system and some state-owned enterprises. On the contrary, a major showdown was averted in South Africa earlier this year after COSATU threatened a largely symbolic one-day strike Jan. 16 after the government unilaterally announced plans to trim back and privatize parts of various state-owned concerns.

COSATU was upset that it had not been consulted. The strike was called off after the two sides signed a pact Feb. 7 that makes the trade-union movement an active partner in the way state assets are restructured or sold. Since then, government ministers have tried to avoid using the word ''privatization,'' opting instead for the less harsh-sounding ''restructuring.''

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''It is inevitable there will be some tension,'' says political scientist Tom Lodge at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But he says that unlike most African and many European countries, South Africa's government and unions have a relationship based on mutual respect.

''The ANC, like other African nationalist parties, came to power on the back of workers' struggles,'' Professor Lodge says. ''But what is different ... is that the relationship is so much more an equal one.... [The unions] are aligned to, but not governed by, the ANC.''

COSATU leaders increasingly will have to struggle to balance cooperation with representing the aspirations of grass-roots, hard-line unionists who feel betrayed by the new government. Even though some top trade unionists have been recruited into the government, hard-liners say this only means that their former comrades have sold out.

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