By LYDIA POLGREEN
Published: October 20, 2012
In the New York Tmes
JOHANNESBURG - Amid mounting criticism that he has failed to stem the tide of labor unrest roiling South Africa, President Jacob Zuma announced Friday nearly $100 billion in infrastructure spending to create jobs, hoping to quell broad frustrations over rising inequality, persistent poverty and low wages.
Mr. Zuma, who is likely to face an internal challenge to his leadership of the governing African National Congress at its conference in December, has begun to act more forcefully in what appears to be an attempt to bolster the country’s flagging growth and to instill confidence in Africa’s biggest economy.
On Wednesday, Mr. Zuma spent five hours meeting with union and business leaders to try to ease tensions that have led to a wave of wildcat strikes in which 75,000 workers have walked off the job. Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Mr. Zuma called upon business leaders to make personal sacrifices by voluntarily foregoing raises and bonuses for a year “as a strong signal of a commitment to build an equitable economy.”
Then on Friday, speaking at a conference focusing on infrastructure, he laid out plans to spend about $100 billion on roads, bridges and ports in the next three years, part of a $475 billion plan to upgrade the country’s creaky infrastructure over the next decade and a half.
He also took the opportunity to plead with politicians and analysts to stop telling journalists how bad South Africa’s current situation is.
“We urge those who have access to the media from all sectors, including opposition politicians, to stop talking our country and economy down,” Mr. Zuma said. “We wish to encourage public opinion makers to also reflect the strides that have been made in all 18 years.”
Two credit rating agencies have slashed South Africa’s debt rating in the past month, and the value of the country’s currency, the rand, has slid sharply. Already hit by the slowdown in Europe, South Africa’s biggest trading partner, the country’s growth prospects have dimmed further, even as some other African countries are booming.
The labor unrest has brought to the surface problems that have been bubbling for many years in South Africa, whose peaceful transition from white rule to nonracial democracy in 1994 made it a powerful symbol of nonviolent conflict resolution.
But inequality and joblessness have increased since the end of apartheid while politicians and businessmen have grown wealthier, leaving many South Africans feeling betrayed.
Mr. Zuma has faced sharp criticism for his handling of the labor crisis from the moment the police opened fire on striking miners in Marikana on Aug. 16, killing 34. Mr. Zuma was at a regional conference in Mozambique and did not return until the next day to visit the site of the shootings, which were the worst police violence since the end of apartheid.
Mr. Zuma is seeking a second term as president of the A.N.C. and the country, but his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, has hinted that he might challenge Mr. Zuma.