Biggest South African Union Holds Protest Over Youth Jobs

South Africa’s largest labor union staged protests in seven cities today over high youth unemployment, seven weeks before the continent’s biggest economy holds elections.

About 5,000 people heeded a call by the National Union of Metalworkers to participate in a rally and march in Johannesburg, according to a police estimate. A demonstration in Cape Town attracted more than 4,000, Vuyo Lufele, regional secretary for the union known as Numsa, said by phone. Numsa represents more than 340,000 workers at companies including Sasol Ltd. and Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd.

“We are now in a situation where we are facing a national crisis,” Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim told a crowd gathered at a Johannesburg park. About 63 percent of South Africans aged from 15 to 24 are unemployed, according to a government survey.

Widespread labor disruption would deepen the strain on an economy already dealing with an eight-week strike by more than 70,000 platinum miners that has cost producers more than $800 million in lost sales. South Africa holds elections on May 7.

“We hope that government will hear our concerns,” said John Mahana, 40, a machine operator who attended the Johannesburg rally. A state plan to subsidize youth wages to boost hiring “does not address the question of decent work.”

Energy, Mines

More than 5,000 protesters attended a rally at a community hall in the eastern Mpumalanga province, Numsa regional secretary Eric Linda said by phone. They included workers from Sasol, Eskom, and mining operations including Samancor Ltd., he said.

Eskom’s role as supplier of 95 percent of the country’s electricity makes any walkout by its workers illegal, said Andrew Etzinger, a spokesman for the Johannesburg-based utility.

“If an employee takes leave and joins the action, then they’re entitled to do that, but certainly not while they’re on the clock at Eskom,” Etzinger said.

Sasol, the world’s biggest producer of liquid fuels from coal, said it hasn’t noticed any effect from the protest call. “There is no visible participation in the strike and attendance is normal,” Alex Anderson, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail. He wouldn’t say how many members Numsa has at Sasol.

About 2,000 protesters wearing red t-shirts marched to Parliament in central Cape Town, carrying posters and banners reading “equal pay for equal work” and “living wage for all now.”

ANC Support

While Food and Allied Workers Union members won’t walk off their jobs, the union will encourage workers to participate in protest marches, the South African Press Association reported, citing Katishi Masemola, general secretary of the labor group.

Numsa has said it won’t campaign in support of the ruling African National Congress, as it has before previous ballots. While it has withdrawn its backing for the ANC, the union said it won’t actively campaign for other parties or discourage its members from voting for the ANC.

Numsa went on strike over pay last year at carmakers including General Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co. Nico Vermeulen, director at the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa, didn’t immediately respond to a text message seeking comment on today’s protests.

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