Over a million teachers, nurses and other government workers have downed tools across South Africa, suspending public education and healthcare while their demands for better pay go head-to-head with government's reluctance to accede.
"We have embarked on an indefinite strike ... all public schools are reporting zero presence - that means 100 percent absenteeism of teachers, so [the strike] is a success," Mugwena Maluleke, General Secretary of South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU), told IRIN.
Public hospitals and clinics have managed to stay open with skeleton staff running essential services, but the department of health has asked the public to only use hospitals in emergencies and to opt for private facilities if they can.
Unions and the ministry of public service and administration have been locked in negotiations since April 2010. Civil servants are demanding an 8.6 percent wage increase and a housing allowance of R1,000 (US$137) per month, while the government has only agreed, so far, to a 7 percent raise and R700 ($96) a month for housing.
In a statement on 12 August the ruling African National Congress (ANC) called on "government and labour to urgently find a speedy resolution to the labour dispute in the public service, which has led to the countrywide strike crippling government-provided essential services like schooling and hospital services".
It noted that "With school [year-end] examinations not far off, the strike action has brought almost all public schools to a standstill, something that has adversely affected thousands of learners."
Schools will be crushed
Ronald Nyathi, SADTU's spokesman in Gauteng Province, was quoted in local media as saying: "Any school that stays open is declaring war on 1.3 million [public workers] ... we will crush you because we are many."
The threat has not been taken lightly. One inner-city school in Johannesburg told parents by text message: "Please make your own decision regarding your children's safety," and "Learners may wear 'civvies' [casual clothes rather than the school uniform]," after school on 19 August. The school would open the next day, but "gates will close at 8 a.m. sharp and close again at home time [around 2 p.m.]."
SADTU said in a statement on 19 August that it "condemns violence against or conducted by our members. The Union's policy denounces violence and intimidation from any quarter."
Local media reported that police fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds and used water hoses against protesters in various parts of Johannesburg. "The shooting left six SADTU members injured - two suffered head wounds," SADTU said.
Hospitals barely running
Gauteng's provincial minister of health, Qedani Mahlangu, appealed to striking workers to refrain from intimidation, and not to prevent ambulances, doctors, nurses and patients from entering hospital premises or deny patients access to much needed medical care.
|While workers have a right to express their dissatisfaction, it is unacceptable that lives of desperate people are put at risk|
"While workers have a right to express their dissatisfaction, it is unacceptable that lives of desperate people are put at risk," she said in a statement on 18 August.
The following day, after assisting staff at the Natalspruit Hospital in Ekurhuleni, east of Johannesburg, Mahlangu told IRIN that 40 babies had been evacuated from the facility due to the strikes and protests by medical staff.
"The army has arrived to provide medical care and security," at public health facilities throughout the province, and she had urged "those willing to work to come back" because the army could now provide security from violent protests, she told IRIN.
The Ministry of Defence said the military was assisting in the provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, and were on standby in Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Free State, North West and Northern Cape.
Mahlangu said contingency plans – like private companies taking care of linen and the army providing medical staff – meant "everything is in order", but she was pleading with the public "not to bring their loved ones to the hospital [unless absolutely necessary]", and for families to take home patients that could be discharged.
Local media reported a number of casualties, including babies, but Mahlangu said this was not necessarily a direct result of the picketing or absence of staff - "in any hospital, people die daily".
South Africa has around 1.3 million public servants, represented by 14 unions. According to the ministry of finance the government's latest offer of a 7 percent raise and R700 ($96) a month for housing would already exceed the budget allocation by R5 billion ($890 million) - money the government simply does not have.
It is struggling to meet promises to the poorest South Africans to deliver services like improved housing and access to electricity and water, and has been left with little room to manoeuvre.
The country "has many social and economic problems, but there is also a strong dosage of politics and ideology in here [the union demands]; there is a political angle to the negotiations," Dawie Roodt, a government finance expert, told IRIN.
"It's not only about better pay, but also pressuring the state for redistribution of wealth to reduce inequality. Politicians have been 'over-promising' and most definitely 'under-delivering'," and although the government had taken the responsibility to effect social change, it has "bitten off too much".
The state and the economy could simply not afford to give in to union demands. "Fiscal deficit is six percent of GDP [gross domestic product]; this is not sustainable and needs to be reduced," Roodt said. That would mean a reduction in expenditure and an increase in taxes, or a combination of both.
Take it or leave it
Despite the strike, the public service and administration department said it would unilaterally implement its offer of a 7 percent wage hike and R700 housing allowance offer on 19 August.
"We urge the unions to change their position ... otherwise government will be left with no choice but to implement the offer," spokesman Dumisani Nkwamba said, and indicated that the government would implement the deal in three weeks' time.
"The government can't afford not to pay [the 8.6 percent wage increase and a housing allowance of R1,000 (US$137) per month that we demand] - our grievances are legitimate and genuine. If the government does not come to the table, we will escalate [the strike]," SADTU's Maluleke responded.
"There is never a good time to strike ... poor families will be affected negatively," he added. "But unfortunately the government has not been sensitive to our plight."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions