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New Year, New Round of Strikes in South Africa

South Africans are striking again, although this time it’s farmers, not miners, who are on strike in one of the country’s top wine regions. The New York Times reports:

South African police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at hundreds of striking farm workers who blocked a highway in the grape-growing Western Cape on Wednesday, the first clashes of a year likely to be marked by fractious labor relations.

The workers, many of them black seasonal hires employed to pick and pack fruit on farms owned mainly by the white minority, want a minimum daily wage of 150 rand ($17.44), up from 69 rand.

When talks to avert the strike broke down this week, union leaders blamed the intransigence of the white farmers, highlighting the racial and wealth divisions that continue to rankle 18 years after the end of apartheid.

Race is just one component of South Africa’s struggles with its resource curse. Corruption, political incompetence, and an unemployment rate hovering around 25 percent continue to plague Africa’s biggest economy.

Last year’s widespread labor unrest in the resource-rich country hurt investor confidence and earned the country a downgrade on its sovereign debt rating. Things were beginning to look more stable going into the New Year, but this latest strike and the violent police response it elicited will keep foreign and domestic investors on edge.

It’s hard not to be frustrated by South Africa’s struggles. The country’s potential is only matched by the complexity of its problems. There isn’t a panacea on the horizon, but addressing the sometimes ineffective one-party rule by the ANC and President Zuma wouldn’t hurt. In the meantime, expect another year of strife in South Africa; economic growth isn’t fast enough or widely enough distributed to give the majority enough of a sense of forward progress, and the government isn’t always as effective as it needs to be in providing services to those most in need. But the qualities of patience, forbearance and genuine support for democracy that helped make the transition from apartheid possible haven’t disappeared; there is hope for South Africa still.

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