South Africa strike: 1.3 million government workers push for wage hike

More than 1.3 million government nurses, teachers, and office workers went on strike in South Africa on Wednesday, pushing for higher wages.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
South African state workers seeking higher wages take part in a strike outside the Natalspruit hospital, east of Johannesburg, August 18, 2010.

A nationwide strike of South African government workers – some 1.3 million of them – threatened to bring South Africa’s government to a virtual halt on Wednesday.

Nurses, teachers, clerks, immigration officers, and home affairs personnel all walked out on the job, bringing almost all essential services to a halt.

The strike was called when talks broke down over wage increases. Unions had demanded an 8.6 percent wage increase, while government negotiators stuck to an increase of just 7 percent, along with a small housing allowance.

On Tuesday COSATU Public Service Unions and the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) rejected government's new offer before taking to the streets.

“Starting today [Wednesday] the strike for public service unions will continue until such time that the employer accedes to the demands of the workers,” said Mugwene Maluleke, secretary general for South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).

According to Reuters, a mid-level South African public servant earns about 8,800 rand ($1,200) a month, compared to the national average wage of 6,383 rand, but many economists say that the bulk of govenrment workers remain underpaid.

A strike culture

Strikes are an almost yearly occurrence in South Africa, and have become part of the culture for a nation ruled by a liberation movement – the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela – that enjoys strong support from labor unions.

There is even a “strike season,” in which everyone from police officers to electric utility workers to members of the country’s Army march in protest for higher wages. The current president, Jacob Zuma, himself rode to power in the 2008 elections on the basis of support from the largest union grouping, the Confederation of South African Trades Unions (COSATU), but even those close ties have done nothing to reduce the number of strikes. In fact, they only seem to encourage unions to push for higher wages, and more political power.

Health clinics still operational ... for now

The Department of Health on Wednesday told The Christian Science Monitor that all government hospitals and clinics were still operational, except Natalspruit Hospital in Gauteng province, the economic hub for South Africa.

"Most nurses have reported for duty and business is moving quite well. We are only worried that some protesters are intimidating those willing to work,” says Simon Zwane, spokesman for the Health Department. "We condemn in the strongest terms those that would want to cripple essential services."

Mr. Zwane says his department will deploy office administrators to become nurses in order to keep the essential service going if the strikes continue.

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