Published August 26, 2010
JOHANNESBURG – JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Thousands of civil servants took to the streets across South Africa on Thursday in a peaceful demonstration for higher wages, while police management tried to bar officers from joining a nationwide strike entering its second week.
There was no resolution in sight to the strike that has left volunteers changing babies' diapers and retired nurses dispensing medicine at the country's public hospitals. A similar public service strike in 2007 lasted a month.
"The gap between the rich and poor is growing, yet South Africa is a rich country which can afford to feed its entire people," Khaya Magaxa, a local leader of the South African Communist Party, told a crowd of 5,000 who marched to Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday.
Another 10,000 marchers took to the streets in Johannesburg seeking wage hikes.
Meanwhile, the police union said its members would start striking Saturday, raising security concerns in a country with one of the world's highest rates of violent crime in the world — some 50 murders a day. Police officers also have used water cannon and rubber bullets to control sporadic violence during the strike.
Police management obtained a court order early Thursday barring police from striking, and said officers who joined the protests could be fired. Norman Mampane, spokesman for the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, said union lawyers will challenge the court order.
Many South Africans have been aghast at how the sick and frail have suffered because of the strike. Answering a government call for help, army medics and ordinary South Africans have stepped in to volunteer at public hospitals hard-hit by the strike. Private hospitals, which have not been affected, are also taking some of the sickest patients.
Nolwazi Langa, a nurse at Soweto's Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital who joined the marchers in Johannesburg Thursday, said the 5,500 rand she earns a month lasts only a week, leaving her relying on money lenders for the rest of the month. She also complained about lack of equipment in the hospital, the largest in the region.
"Our managers and the CEOs are arrogant and they don't want to address our grievances," she said.
The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions said member unions who were not already striking were making plans to stop work in a week in solidarity with the civil servants.
Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU's general secretary, said the federation had not wanted a strike and had recommended civil servants accept the government's offer of a 7 percent wage increase plus 700 rand ($96) for housing. The workers, though, are holding out for an 8.6 percent hike and a 1,000 rand ($137) housing allowance.
"We have to be loyal to our numbers," Vavi told reporters Thursday. "If they say this deal is not good enough, we have to march with them."
The strike showed growing tensions between the governing African National Congress party and its traditional supporters.
President Jacob Zuma ousted his predecessor in an internal power struggle with support from COSATU and leftists before leading the ANC to victory in elections last year. Some business leaders had expressed concern that Zuma's government would bow easily to labor's demands, but that has not been the case during this strike.
While the strike intensified, Zuma was in China leading a delegation of 13 Cabinet ministers and 370 business people searching for business partnerships.
South Africa has been hit hard by the global recession, losing 900,000 jobs last year on top of already high unemployment. The government has said it wants to devote funds to creating new jobs, not just raising the salaries of those already working.
Striking workers took aim at Zuma during Thursday's rallies, with one protester holding a sign that read: "Want four wives" and "Need 8.6 percent increase." Zuma has acknowledged having three wives and is reportedly engaged to a fourth woman. Another protester's message was: "Don't run to China please."
Vavi, COSATU's general secretary, said that the job losses and a widening gap between rich and poor has left his organization frustrated with ANC policies. But he said COSATU would continue to support — and try to influence — the ANC.
"We have a class interest to defend and advance," Vavi said. "We are not happy. The mood is anger and disappointment and despair."
Mary Madonsela, who said she took home 2,500 rand a month from her job cleaning government offices, said money lost to corruption could instead be used to raise salaries.
"They must pay us this money and not waste it," said Madonsela, who was among the Johannesburg marchers.
Associated Press writers Donna Bryson in Johannesburg and Thandisizwe Mgudlwa in Cape Town contributed to this report.