Johannesburg has been brought to a grinding halt with 10,000 local government workers marching to Mary Fitzgerald Square to reaffirm their union's demand for a 15 per cent wage increase and a housing subsidy.
About 150,000 workers in the country have stopped work. Unions say that most public services are disrupted.
Marches are happening in all the major centres - Johannesburg, Tshwane, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Sol Plaatjie - as well as in many of the smaller municipalities ranging from Bredasdorp, Mossel Bay and Beaufort West. In other municipalities workers are picketing the municipal offices.
The strikes are the first major challenge for new President Jacob Zuma, who has called for patience from workers but is faced by a situation in which South Africa's organised working class is rapidly running out of it.
Unions reported massive support for the strike, with many services, such as refuse removal, traffic, water maintenance and revenue collection, not operating.
In recent weeks there have been violent protests over the lack of housing, water and electricity in the poorest townships.
The police in charge of traffic policing in the country's major cities are also taking part in the strike.
The country has already faced a major strike by construction workers, threatening stadiums being built for next year's football World Cup.
That strike was ended earlier this month after workers and employers agreed on a 12 per cent rise.
Mr Zuma took power in May after a campaign in which he pledged to ease poverty.
He was supported by the main union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, which wanted a change in the previous administration's economic policies that they argued were too pro-business.
In Cape Town, 3,000 workers marched to the provincial offices of employers' organisation Salga to assert the union's key demands of a living wage, filling of the 25 per cent of vacant posts in the public sector and the improvement of housing benefit, while in Durban 5,000 workers marched and picketed workplaces.
The actions around the country were generally peaceful but there were reports of police action in Polokwane, where workers were shot at and arrested.