[A-List] Violence Erupts as Zuma Orders Police to Crush National Strike
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Mon Aug 23 09:28:45 MDT 2010
Violence Erupts as Zuma Orders Police to Crush National
By Daniel Howden, Africa Correspondent
Friday, 20 August 2010
South Africa's schools and hospitals were transformed
into battlegrounds yesterday as a nationwide strike
escalated into a sometimes violent test of strength
between the government and unions.
Police fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds blocking
roads in one area while healthcare workers picketed
hospitals, preventing patients from seeking help.
Public-sector unions have launched an indefinite strike
demanding an 8.6 per cent pay rise, which the
government has insisted the debt-stricken country
cannot afford. The struggle could be critical to the
future of President Jacob Zuma as well as damaging for
sub-Saharan Africa's largest economy.
"This is more than an industrial dispute," said
Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, an expert on organised
labour at the University of Johannesburg. "It is a
political testing of strength in which Zuma can't be
seen to be weak."
Crowds who blocked a main road near a hospital in
Soweto, holding up traffic and blocking entrance to
patients, were broken up by police firing rubber
bullets and water cannons. Elsewhere in Johannesburg
striking teachers threw bricks and stones at police,
while nurses tore down a gate at one hospital as
pickets struggled to block colleagues who wanted to go
to work as normal.
A worker from one hospital in the commercial capital
said strikers were throwing out doctors and nurses who
were trying to treat patients as normal. Exam papers
were torn up and teachers driven out of schools by
flying pickets in other areas.
"This will continue until we get the response from
government that we need," said the teachers' union
leader Nomusa Cembi.
Unions are demanding an across-the-board wage hike at
nearly double the rate of inflation plus an Â£88 monthly
housing allowance for all civil servants. The
government has offered 7 per cent and Â£62 towards
housing. With South Africa running a large budget
deficit -- equivalent to 6.7 per cent of GDP -- the
housing allowance alone would add another percentage
point to the state budget.
"The days of spending money as though it is unlimited
are essentially over," said the government spokesman
South Africa was hit hard last year by the global
downturn, losing close to a million jobs in a country
where a quarter of the workforce are already jobless.
There are fears that a prolonged strike could reverse
the already anaemic recovery and threaten projected
growth rates of 5 per cent next year.
"The 8.6 per cent demand is simply not affordable as
every additional cent spent on salaries means less
money for other essential services," said the
spokesman. "It also means we cannot employ more
teachers and nurses."
However, any hopes that the government had of a swift
victory over South Africa's trades union congress,
Cosatu, disappeared as other smaller unions joined the
walkouts. The country's influential auto workers' union
is also threatening to expand a strike they began last
week, demanding a 15 per cent increase in wages.
The stand-off between the public sector and the
government comes with frustration against the
leadership of the ruling ANC running high. The unions
now on strike were among Mr Zuma's most influential
backers during his bid for the ANC presidency, and
analysts are seeing the dispute as a test of his
ability to balance the competing forces within the
This week the Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi took a
personal potshot at Mr Zuma and how much he is earning
as a state employee. "If my memory serves me right he
is earning more than R2.2m [Â£195,000]," he told
protesters outside parliament on Tuesday. "He has blood
like we have blood. He has a big family like we do...
Our needs are the same. We want geld [money]."
Some union officials were threatening to carry the
pickets over to private schools and hospitals where the
political elite educate their children and send their
However, the unions themselves risk losing public
support if the strike continues to block access to the
basic services on which the majority of poorer South
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