S Africa deploys soldiers to hospitals

August 23, 2010
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, JOHANNESBURG, Aug 23 – South Africa deployed soldiers to 37 hospitals on Monday to help keep basic health services running, as a nationwide strike by more than one million public workers entered its sixth day.

The government won a court order at the weekend barring essential workers like nurses from joining the strike, which began Wednesday after wage talks with the unions broke down.

Two groups of strikers in Durban defied the order, with workers blocking an entrance at King Edward Hospital and police firing rubber bullets to clear the entrance to Addington Hospital, according to the Sapa news agency.

Police at Johannesburg hospitals were guarding entrances during peaceful protests, while in Cape Town health officials said only a handful of hospital workers were off the job.

The defence ministry said military teams were called in to aid doctors and to replace striking support staff in cleaning bed linen and providing meals at 37 hospitals.

"Depending on the request, a medical team may consist of doctors, nurses and emergency health care practitioners," defence spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said in a statement.

"The South African Military Health Service is also deploying personnel to assist with the cleaning of the hospitals," he added.

Health and education officials scrambled to fill the gaps left by striking workers, calling for volunteers to work in hospitals and help students make up lost classroom time ahead of their October exams.

In northern Mpumalanga province, the education department arranged for lessons to be broadcast on the radio and sample test questions to be circulated in local newspapers.

Teachers have been the most vocal strikers, but schools began a two-week holiday on Monday.

The country\’s largest teachers\’ union said it planned to contest the court interdict ordering "essential services" employees back to work, saying it was overly broad.

"We have resolved that we are not going to retreat from continuing with our demonstrations until our demands are met," the South African Democratic Teachers\’ Union said in a statement.

"Our strike is legal and we will continue to intensify our actions."

Rowdy strikes are annual events in South Africa, where contracts come up for renewal at mid-year.

This year public workers postponed their strike threat until after the World Cup, a gesture that did little to close the gap with government over wages.

Unions are demanding an 8.6-percent wage increase and a 1,000-rand (137-dollar, 108-euro) housing allowance. The government has moved to unilaterally implement a seven percent raise and a 700-rand housing allowance.

The cabinet says meeting the unions\’ wage demands would require cuts in other services, amid fierce public pressure for greater access to housing, water and electricity.

Inflation is running at 4.2 percent in South Africa, but unions argue that big increases are needed to close the gap between rich and poor, in one of the world\’s least equal societies.

Unions are politically powerful and a key ally of President Jacob Zuma\’s ruling African National Congress, but tensions have erupted over both wages and general economic policy.

Anger over the wage offer is fuelled in part by what workers see as a flashy display of spending by senior government officials on expensive cars and luxury hotels.

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