by Fanuel Jongwe Fanuel Jongwe/AFP in Johannesburg.
More than a million South African public servants went on strike Wednesday, warning that their increasingly bitter standoff with the government will continue until their wage demands are met.
“The strike is indefinite. It will go on until there has been an improvement, until the government delivers on our demands,” said Fikile Majola, general secretary of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union.
The stay-away shut down schools across the country just three days before a two-week academic holiday, and trials were postponed as court staff walked out. Essential employees like doctors, police and immigration agents reported for duty, but local media said small groups of protesters blocked entrances to some hospitals.
Public unions have refused to budge from demands for an 8.6 percent increase — more than twice the rate of inflation — and a monthly housing allowance of 1,000 rands (137 dollars, 107 euros).
The government has offered a seven percent increase and a 700-rand housing allowance which will cost the state five billion rands. “As the employer we have demonstrated for all to see that our capacity to afford is actually exhausted. We have not emptied the envelope, we have broken it,” public services minister Richard Baloyi told journalists in Cape Town.
The strike was announced late Tuesday after four days of consultation in which the state’s offer was rejected by unions representing 1.3 million teachers, nurses and government workers.
“The response has been very good especially in the schools,” Majola told AFP.
No major marches were held Wednesday because the strike was announced so late the night before, but pockets of small protests broke out in cities around the country, led mainly by teachers.
A one-day strike last week was only partially observed with union leaders warning that a full-blown walkout would follow if the government did not deliver. The state has insisted it cannot meet the unions’ demands without trimming public services, amid fierce pressure to improve schools and expand access to water and electricity.
Finance minister Pravin Gordhan has said government wants to spend more money to create new jobs rather than increase salaries, in a nation where unemployment stands at more than 24 percent.
The government will put its final signed offer on the bargaining table on Thursday, giving the unions three weeks to respond, with Baloyi saying five billion rands is needed to bankroll the increases.
That is money “that we don’t have in our budget,” he said.
The government said it remained committed to a solution but warned that intimidation or disruptive protests would not be tolerated, and that a “no work, no pay” principle would be applied to strikers.
President Jacob Zuma’s administration is looking to avoid a repeat of a crippling four-week strike three years ago which was the longest and most widespread since the end of apartheid in 1994.
South Africa’s unions are politically powerful and a key ally of Zuma’s ruling African National Congress, but tensions have erupted over both wages and general economic policy.
Anger over the wage offer is fuelled in part by what workers see as a flashy display of wealth by senior government officials on expensive cars and high hotel bills.
Unions played a key role in the struggle against the white-minority apartheid government, which also gives them a special stature in society.