Hospitals blocked as South African unions resume massive strikes

After a brief World Cup reprieve, South African unions have resumed massive, ongoing strikes for higher wages. Schools closed, trials were postponed and hospitals left nearly empty on Thursday as more than 1 million civil servants across the country stopped working.

In Johannesburg, police fired rubber bullets to scatter protesting teachers who were trying to block a stretch of highway. Scuffles also broke out in several hospitals across the country, where striking workers blocked their non-striking coworkers and patients from entering the buildings. In Natalspruit Hospital in Gauteng, 11 nurses and 2 doctors were left to attend to more than 500 patients, including 23 babies.

"It was a disaster," said MEC [provincial government official] for Health Qedani Mahlangu. She said two underweight babies, weighing 760g and 770g, were found dead on Wednesday night due to lack of care.

Unions are demanding an 8.6 percent pay rise, more than double the inflation rate, and 1,000 rand (160 euros) for housing. Last week the government offered to increase the monthly housing allowance to 700 (74 euros) rand from a previous offer of 630 (67 euros) rand, but refused to increase its wage hike offer of 7 percent.

"As government, as the employer, we have indicated and demonstrated for all to see that our capacity to afford is actually exhausted," Public Services Minister Richard Baloyi told a news conference in Cape Town.

Video posted by Amandla! on Youtube on August 11, 2010.

"Blocking hospitals is not acceptable"

Sipho January is a community liaison officer from Cape Town.

At present, the South African public is quite confused as to whether it should sympathise with the government or the strikers. Obviously, civil servants are within their rights to strike, but the government says it has already offered the maximum it can afford. That may be true, although it seems hard to believe that a country which spent 30 billion rand (3.2 billion euros) or more for the World Cup can't accede to union's salary demands, which amount to a total of 5 billion rand (54 million euros).

It's true that South African civil servants are poorly paid, in comparison to countries with similar GDPs. A municipal worker's starting salary of 8,000 rand (857 euros) doesn't even qualify for loans. The average state worker with 7 years experience and a bachelor's degree makes 14,000 rand (1,499 euros) - that's barely enough to live by in Johannesburg.

However, the protester's latest moves to block hospitals are not acceptable. They put human lives at risk, and will only erode public support for the protest."

"The government’s arguments don’t ring true"

Patrick Craven is the national spokesperson for The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), whose member unions have called for an indefinite strike.

We don't believe the government's argument that it can't afford more than a 7 percent pay rise for civil servants. It just doesn't ring true. Thousands of workers in South Africa are really struggling just to get by -and these are all a qualified, valuable workforce. Addressing their needs should be a national priority. We hope that the government will come forward with a new proposal in the near future."

"The unemployed look to their working relatives for support – but they barely have enough to live by"

S'bu Zikode is president of the slumdweller's rights movement Abahlali base.

What the unions are asking for is completely legitimate. Most civil servants are very badly paid in comparison to government officials and legislators -these unjustifiable gaps must be breached. We know that legislators pay themselves generous bonuses each year, as well as a driving subsidy and other benefits. Then they say they can't afford to raise salaries... No Way. They're crazy.

The unemployment rate is extremely high in South Africa [25.3%], and many jobless people look to their relatives with a job for support. The fact that those who do work barely have enough to live by, let alone support others, makes things even worse. The government needs to look for a compromise that will allow workers to contribute to societ.

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