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S. Africa civil servants mount major strike

world Updated: Jun 01, 2007 19:30 IST

Reuters
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South African civil servants staged the biggest strike in three years on Friday, causing turmoil in some hospitals and emptying classrooms as unions demanded a hefty wage hike.

Police fired stun grenades at picketing workers outside Cape Town's Tygerberg Hospital, injuring at least one person, as many nurses across the country defied a government ban on job stayaways by essential workers, the SABC reported.

Outside Cape Town's Groote Schuur hospital, striking nurses allowed ambulances to enter only during emergencies.

"How on earth can we cope? Everybody thinks of the patients but what about us," said one nurse, who asked not to be named.

Raising the possibility that mass action could hit South Africa's vital minerals industry, the president of the powerful COSATU labour federation urged miners to strike.

"We are not going back until the government starts negotiating properly," Willie Madishi told civil servants outside the Gauteng province premier's office.
Some people reported intimidation by union members.

COSATU, which represents about 60 per cent of the nation's nearly one million public servants, had aimed to shut down most public services in a wage dispute with government.

It had called on 700,000 public workers to strike and said early turnout was a success. "Reports so far indicate a very, very good turnout," said COSATU spokesman Patrick Craven.

But in some areas of the country teachers and nurses showed up for work as normal, making the impact hard to gauge.

COSATU, which is in a formal alliance with the ruling African National Congress, has criticised President Thabo Mbeki for what it says are free-market economic policies that favour big business over the poor.

Anger boiled over after an official body recommended Mbeki receive a 57 percent pay rise.

Unions have demanded a 12 per cent pay increase for public sector workers, while the government has proposed 6 percent, about the same amount that ended a similar strike by 700,000 workers in 2004.

"Fifty-seven per cent for fat cats and 6 per cent for poor hard workers. Shame on you," one placard brandished by a picketer at the Johannesburg hospital said.

The government, seeking to keep a lid on inflation, increased its offer on Wednesday to a 6.5 per cent to 9.0 per cent increase, but talks have been acrimonious.

The government issued a statement reminding essential workers such as firemen, police officers and doctors that they were barred from striking and a court order banned immigration officers from joining the action.

But hospitals appeared particularly hard hit, with nurses and cleaners picketing in Johannesburg and Cape Town over salary levels which see some nurses earning $640 per month.

"Today is the beginning of the strike. Until they reach an agreement, the hospital is going to run on half-staff," said union shop steward Danny Losaba at Johannesburg General.

Around half the 3,000 union members on staff remained on the job to cover essential services while half were on strike, he said, but some patients said care had all but ground to a halt.

"We had an appointment today, but were turned away. They can strike but not now, what if it's an emergency?," asked Fatima Ockards, returning home with her infant in Cape Town.

While schools were open in some parts of the country, in many other areas teachers and students failed to show up.
"There is absolutely no teaching going on," said Principal Toyer Arnold of the Belgravia High School on the Cape Flats outside of Cape Town, where 80 percent of staff stayed away.

Airport officials said operations at the country's three main international airport were running smoothly, although they said some immigration officers were not aware of the court order banning them from striking and had not reported for duty.