Union says the South African government increases its wage offer to striking civil servants

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The South African government has increased its offer to civil servants whose nationwide strike for higher wages has crippled hospitals and schools across the country, officials said Tuesday.

In a statement following late-night meetings held at President Jacob Zuma's insistence, the public service ministry said it was increasing its salary hike offer from 7 to 7.5 percent and housing allowance from 700 rand ($96) to 800 rand ($110). The workers want an 8.6 percent raise and 1,000 rand ($137) for housing.

The government said unions were given time to put the proposal to members, and more meetings were set for Wednesday.

A spokesman for the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, Sizwe Pamla, said it may take one or two days to hear back from members. He would not say how he expected his members to react.

Nurses and other health workers on the picket line outside Helen Joseph, a major Johannesburg hospital, refused to comment early Tuesday, saying their union representatives had not yet formally informed them of the offer. But the anti-government songs they sang as they protested may be an indication that the government's offer may not be readily accepted.

Hospitals and schools have been hardest hit by the strike, which has been marred by sporadic violence and was entering its third week. Infants have had to be evacuated from intensive care units to private hospitals, and army medics and volunteers are helping out in public institutions.

Schools also have been affected, a worry for students in their final year who were preparing for crucial exams.

"The government must give the teachers what they want, they work so hard. This strike is affecting us very badly as students, our September trial exams have been postponed already," said Nontobeko Mathonsi, a student at Lavela High in Soweto, in southwestern Johannesburg.

Banele Kubheka, of KwaMahlobo High in Soweto, said the strike must continue "because the teachers are not going to teach us until they get the increase anyway."

Court cases have been delayed, and work at passport offices and morgues has slowed. Other unions that do not represent civil servants have said their members could hold a one-day sympathy strike Thursday, putting further pressure on the government.

But some teachers and medical workers have returned to work. Threats police and soldiers would join the strike have subsided, and energy appears to be dissipating on the picket lines.

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Associated Press Writer Eric Naki in Johannesburg contributed to this report.