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South Africa president pledges to help poor after May Day protest

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa promised yesterday to improve conditions for workers and the poor, saying he had heard the grievances of miners who drove him from a May Day celebration.

The protesters held up placards demanding a pay rise and chanted ‘Cyril must go’ during a televised ceremony organised by the country’s largest union at a stadium in the northern town of Rustenberg. He was quickly led away from the stadium by police and his security.

“I was… unable to address the gathering because workers there had grievances that they expressed loudly and clearly,” the head of state said in a weekly newsletter.

“While the main grievance appeared to be about wage negotiations at nearby mines, the workers’ actions demonstrated a broader level of discontent,” he said.

“It reflects a weakening of trust in their union and Federation as well as political leadership, including public institutions,” Ramaphosa said.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a speech during the memorial service for former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi. PHOTO: AFP

“We have all heard the workers and understand their frustration. It is the working class and the poor who were affected most,” he said.

“We are firmly committed to take the necessary action to improve their lives and their working conditions,” the president vowed. South Africa is the continent’s leading economic power but has been hit hard by the Covid crisis, and unemployment is at a record 35 per cent.

Tension in the labour market has fuelled anti-foreigner sentiment and sporadic demonstrations.

Ramaphosa was an anti-apartheid activist and trade unionist in South Africa during white-minority rule, helping to found the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982.

After the end of apartheid, he entered the private sector, becoming a highly successful businessman before returning to politics, serving as vice president to Jacob Zuma.

He ascended to president in 2018 after Zuma was forced out by mounting corruption scandals.