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JOHANNESBURG, May 25 (Reuters) - South African transport workers, on strike for a third week, have threatened to call for sympathy walkouts at the national airline and elsewhere less than three weeks before the soccer World Cup kicks off.
The strike at rail and logistics group Transnet [TRAN.UL] has curtailed exports of metals, cars, wine and fruit to Asia and Europe. The government said farmers had lost over $127 million due to the strike, putting jobs in the agriculture sector at risk. [ID:nLDE64O15L]. Even football body FIFA said imports of some equipment for the World Cup had been affected.
The following looks at various issues.
South Africa's biggest union, The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), said its members at state-owned power utility Eskom would strike from May 26 over a pay dispute. Any strike at Eskom could disrupt electricity supplies and embarrass President Jacob Zuma's government in the run-up to the World Cup.
The union and Eskom were in talks on Tuesday to try and resolve the issue. NUM said the labour action will go ahead if no agreement is reached.
South Africa is preparing to host the month-long World Cup from June 11 and economists and analysts have criticised the unions for using the tournament to push for wage hikes way above inflation of 5.1 percent, and for other demands.
The NUM called off a similar strike last year after reaching agreement with Eskom but revived its threat after the company failed to implement certain parts of the deal.
Eskom has said it had contingency plans in place to ensure power supply. But with South Africa approaching the winter months when electricity demand peaks, a prolonged labour action could lead to blackouts.
South Africa suffered a serious power crisis in 2008, the result of years of neglect of electricity generation capacity, which cut output in industry and the key mining sector for days.
The country's powerful labour federation COSATU has also threatened to strike over hefty electricity price increases during the World Cup.
COSATU opposes a 25 percent rise in electricity prices granted to Eskom. The labour federation says the increase and two similar increases over the next two years will have a crippling effect on the poor and lead to further job losses.
Since the start of the year, there has been an upsurge in protests in black townships and shantytowns where poor residents are angry over the government's failure to provide housing, jobs and basic services, such as electricity and water.
In the first quarter of 2010 there were 54 major protests compared to 109 for the whole of last year, according to Municipal IQ, a local government monitoring service.
The often violent protests have produced images reminiscent of the apartheid era with police using force to break them up. They have erupted around the country and police have said they are prepared for any such protests during the World Cup.
The longer the labour unrest continues, the more Zuma and his government will come under pressure to act to avert any potentially damaging impact on the World Cup -- for which South Africa has been preparing since 2004.
Zuma has already appealed to workers not to disrupt the World Cup but his call has had no impact so far. Any strong action from Zuma could further alienate him from the support base that helped him reach the country's top political position.
The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa), a grouping of human rights and migrant organisations including Amnesty International and the South African Red Cross, warned this month that attacks against foreign migrants could flare up again.
A wave of xenophobic attacks two years ago saw at least 62 people killed and over 100,000 foreign migrants displaced.
Cormsa said at least 10 incidents of violence against foreigners have taken place since the start of the year.
The xenophobic attacks in 2008 were only brought to an end after massive intervention by police and the army.
Any violent protest or xenophobic attack in the next eight weeks will have a devastating effect on South Africa's image as the unrest will be amplified by the presence in the country of tens of thousands of soccer fans, journalists and officials from across the world.
South Africa's government has spent billions of dollars on upgrading transport infrastructure and building soccer stadiums, hoping a successful World Cup will boost the country's image and attract millions more tourists over the next five years.
Major unrest, high-profile crime incidents or a terrorist attack during the event will undermine those plans as well as financial markets in Africa's biggest economy.
Editing by Mark Heinrich