More than 700,000 public sector workers, including 320,000 teachers, struck on 16 September in probably the biggest strike in South Africa’s history.
Eight public sector unions representing teachers, nurses, police officers and prison wardens took part in the one-day strike. The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union said that around 200,000 strikers took part in the 24 marches held across the country.
The strike is over this year’s pay offer to public sector workers. In April the government offered a 4.4% wage rise, far lower than the unions’ 12% demand. In June the government raised its offer to 5.5% and the unions lowered their demand to 7%.
Mass protests took place earlier this month in Johannesburg, prompting the government to offer a new three-year deal: a 6% increase for 2004, plus a 1% performance-related pay rise, and a pay rise in line with inflation for 2005 and 2006. Unions refused the deal, wanting a 7% rise this year and the right to negotiate above-inflation rises thereafter.
The wider context is the ANC government’s so-called Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, which involves cuts in government spending and part-privatisation of the state telecommunications company. The government has no plans to reduce chronic unemployment, estimated at between 30 and 40% of the adult population.
The main trade union federation COSATU has been in close alliance with the ANC since 1994, but these strikes may be important in that relationship. COSATU’s membership has declined from a peak of two million to 1.7 million, as the number of workers in manufacturing and mining industries has fallen sharply. But new members have been recruited in service industries.