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South Africa could become 'new Egypt,' warns trade union leader

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South African trade union leader Zewelinzima Vavi
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zwelinzima Vavi is general secretary of the Congress of South African trade unions
  • He calls for drastic action to deal with the problem of youth unemployment
  • 'I'm a socialist, but a realist,' says Vavi

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

(CNN) -- South Africa risks witnessing mass uprisings if it doesn't act urgently to deal with rampant youth unemployment, the leader of the country's trade union movement has warned.

As general secretary of the Congress of South African trade unions (Cosatu), which boasts some two million members, Zwelinzima Vavi's voice is an influential one.

Speaking to CNN's Nkepile Mabuse, Vavi warned that 35 years after a youth revolt against the apartheid regime, the country's unemployment levels could lead to a new uprising.

"If we don't do something urgent enough with the crisis of youth unemployment in South Africa we will be in Tunisia and Egypt very soon," he said.

An edited version of the interview follows.

CNN: You've warned that South Africa risks another 1976 uprising, tell us what you mean by that?

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Zwelinzima Vavi: I've participated in the struggle and I know what type of aspirations and hopes all of us carried throughout those many dark years of struggle against apartheid ... I'm only pointing out that after 17 years of all that democracy in the country we've seen little change when it comes to economic freedom, and I normally say we have a political freedom, but the economic jewelry is not hanging on our necks.

We have unemployment that I've already described at 36.6%, with 48% of our people living in poverty. We're now number one in the world when it comes to inequalities.

I participated in local government elections and I see the face of poverty every day: it's a grinding, humiliating type of poverty that many people will be on the streets demonstrating if they were to be subjected to the same conditions that the poor are subjected to in the country, and already in my view we're seeing an implosion in the country.

CNN: Service delivery protests?

ZV: You saw the service delivery protest, and having interacted with that thing, I'm of the view that even if we can get the best councilor elected in some of those rural towns, you're not going to get that situation turned around.

The crisis is structural; as long as your economy is not put in a new growth path that can absorb large numbers of youth into employment in South Africa, we're sitting with that unemployment.

There's been, in my view, serious lack of political willingness because people are not put under pressure enough.
--Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of Cosatu
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Seventy-three percent of all the people who are unemployed are below the age of 35 -- that's a crisis, that's 1976 waiting to happen again and we've urged that we must address that crisis with the necessary speed and my sense is that more and more South Africans are coming to accept that is true.

If we don't do something urgent enough with the crisis of youth unemployment in South Africa we will be in Tunisia and Egypt very soon.

CNN: Why do you think there hasn't been urgency within the ruling party to address this issue?

ZV: There's been, in my view, a serious lack of political willingness because people are not put under pressure enough. You know when you feel that your tomorrow is guaranteed, your levels of support are guaranteed, you tend to loosen up and the urgency disappears -- that's what's been lacking.

CNN: Some analysts would say, if you had it your way, South Africa would not be a business-friendly and investor-friendly environment.

ZV: Not true, not true -- I'm a realist, I'm a socialist but (one) who is a realist. I know that 80% of all people employed in the economy of South Africa are employed in the private sector and that demonstrates the extent of the role of the markets, of the private sector, in the South African economy. I wish that was not true, but that is true.

I think that sometimes there is an exaggerated, completely misinformed view about the South African labor laws. Lots of people say that they have become too rigid and (are) not creating space for private firms, or it is not an attractive investment destination -- I don't think that is at all true.

CNN: Would you ever accept a government job, if it was offered to you again? I understand that when President Jacob Zuma became president you were offered a government position.

ZV: Under the conditions of today? No I would not. My basic belief is that we must build a stronger movement of the ANC outside government, capable of holding the leadership to account in every respect.

You don't wait for the elections to do correct things, you do them because they are right things to be done every day, which is what I think has become lacking in the country.