Public workers hit the streets in S. Africa

Hundreds of thousands of South African public workers held a one-day strike Sept. 16 over the government’s rejection of their demands for a 7 percent wage hike, an across-the-boards medical aid and housing allowance, and review of a provision linking salaries to inflation for the next two years.

Nearly all South Africa’s 1.1 million public workers are represented by unions affiliated to the three major trade union federations — the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), the Federation of Unions of South Africa and the National Council of Trade Unions.

Over 700,000 reportedly joined the strike, and hundreds of thousands marched in some 25 cities around the country. In Pretoria, the capital, over 50,000 unionists, led by COSATU President Willie Madisha, marched to the government headquarters, where they blew whistles and sang songs from the anti-apartheid struggle before presenting a memorandum to Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi. COSATU spokesperson Patrick Craven called the demonstration a “show of unprecedented solidarity across the board.”

Calling the government’s offer of a 6 percent increase “unacceptable,” COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said the proposal amounted to a wage freeze in real terms and failed to recognize the increased productivity of public workers. He also cited the recent victory by the metalworkers union, which won a 7.5 percent increase, plus better benefits.

Noting that the South African Communist Party does not involve itself directly in details of collective bargaining, and shares the expressed wishes of both sides to have avoided the strike, General Secretary Blade Nzimande pointed to “a disturbing tendency to headline disruptions to services to learners, pensioners and other recipients, while the legitimate concerns of public services workers are entirely marginalized.”

In a statement on the eve of the strike, Nzimande warned against pitting the interests of workers against the rest of the population, “as if public service workers and their families were not also citizens, learners and pensioners.” He called attention to an “incessant campaign of denigration of the public sector by the privileged” who do not depend on it for education, health care or pensions, and said the strike needed to be understood against the daily pressures public workers face at “overburdened and underfunded” public institutions.

“The SACP calls for a holistic approach in dealing with the current dispute,” he said. “Much as the SACP would not like to see the disruption of public services, we fully support the right of workers to strike,” he said.