Connect to share and comment

South Africa: Civil servants strike

Government employees close schools, hospitals and challenge President Jacob Zuma and ANC.

South African strikers
Striking members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) chant slogans under heavy police presence during a march in Durban on September 03, 2010.(Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A nationwide strike by 1.3 million government workers — now in its third week — has brought to a standstill many of South Africa's schools and hospitals.

The strike of public sector workers, including teachers, nurses, immigration officers and most other government employees, is for higher wages and benefits and threatens to become the most serious work stoppage since the end of apartheid in 1994.

The strike is also a battle for the political high ground in the country.

Government hospitals across the country are closed or operating with skeleton staffs including 3,000 military medical officers deployed to strategic hospitals. Several patients have died because of the reduced medical care, according to local news reports.

Strikers allegedly stabbed a non-striking nurse at Northdale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg a week ago and in Bloemfontein a fire is alleged to have been set by strikers.

Police have fired rubber bullets into striking workers, and hundreds of incidents of violence on the part of workers are being investigated by the courts. Schools are closed, exams are being missed, and there is no end in sight.

The country that so successfully hosted the World Cup of soccer has seen its government business crippled. The real estate business is hampered because government clerks are not processing  housing clearance certificates. The immigration office is not issuing work permits, passports or travel documents.

The car manufacturing industry, the biggest in Africa, shut down as well when the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) joined the strike on Aug. 30.

Nevertheless, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, said last week that the strike would not have a major economic impact.

This seems like hopeful thinking, since any pay increase would likely increase the South African government's spending by 1 to 2 percent and would increase the national deficit significantly. If the strike carries on for much longer, there is every reason to expect economic growth will indeed suffer.

South Africa's strong labor unions helped to bring about the end of apartheid to bring the ANC party to power. But now their demands for higher wages are often cited by potential foreign investors as a reason to avoid South Africa, depriving the nation of much-needed foreign direct investment.

In this country of almost 50 million people, unemployment runs at roughly 30 percent and inflation is about 4.2 percent. The unions are asking the government for an 8.6 percent rise in yearly take-home pay, more than double the inflation rate. The government has offered a 7.5 percent rise but the strikers are holding out for the remaining 1.1 percent and vow they will continue to do so.

The strike hits South Africa just as it was recovering from the worldwide recession.

Wages in South Africa are relatively low and living standards of workers are bad. Many black workers, especially trade union members, are angry that their lives have not improved significantly since the end of apartheid. More than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to surveys.