Now is the winter of labour discontent in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG - South Africans may be basking in the spring of democracy but a winter of discontent is gripping their unions, writes Karl Maier.

Demands for wage increases, an end to on-the-job racial discrimination, and frustration with the lack of quick change since President Nelson Mandela was sworn into office in May, have sparked a wave of strikes. 'In a country like South Africa, with obscene disparities, where workers have been denied their basic human rights, current developments are hardly surprising,' Sam Shilowa, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, (Cosatu) wrote in an editorial published yesterday.

Charges of widespread discrimination against black employees were also made by Tom Phalama, secretary general of the 8,000-strong Banking, Insurance, Finance and Assurance Workers' Union. Some of the workers earned just 800 Rand ( pounds 140) a month, and existing training programmes were inadequate, he told a meeting on Saturaday at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg to launch a campaign against low wages and retrenchments.

In the first six months of this year strikes have cost more than 1 million man-days compared to 700,000 for the same period last year. Labour unrest has gripped a wide range of workers, from court interpreters to mineworkers. Since Mr Mandela's inauguration, at least 100,000 workers have taken strike action. Negotiations between the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and car manufacturers broke down on Friday.

Workers at the Pick 'n Pay supermarket chain are in the middle of a bitter national strike that has seen police turn dogs on strikers and employees take management officials hostage.

Expectations among black workers of better wages and working conditions have been fuelled not only by the new African National Congress-led government and the presence of 60 former Cosatu officials in regional and national parliament, but also by the economy's emergence from a deep recession.

Mr Mandela stepped into the fray on Saturday, urging employers to refrain from using the security forces to deal with labour disputes and saying that 'strong-arm tactics' would not work.