PRETORIA, Aug 10 – Thousands of South African civil servants Tuesday marched through the capital Pretoria and to the parliament in Cape Town to press for better salaries, threatening an open-ended strike over wages.
Workers danced and sang national and communist anthems in the streets of Pretoria as they headed to the Union Buildings, the seat of the national government, where they will deliver a petition with their demands.
Government has offered a seven percent increase, but unions are demanding 8.6 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation.
Negotiators were set to meet later Tuesday. Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary general of the main labour body Cosatu, said workers were prepared to stage an open-ended strike from Thursday if their demands aren\’t met.
"If the offer is not forthcoming, then we proceed on Thursday," Vavi told AFP in Cape Town. "Then we\’ll have a protracted strike from Thursday. It means that for as long as it is necessary to force government to come to the table."
Unions representing 1.3 million government workers backed the strike, calling for teachers and public health workers to leave the job.
One speaker urged the crowd to "exercise minimum revolutionary discipline", but the mood remained festive as workers carried signs like "Want to pay peanuts? Employ monkeys."
"I\’m a professional teacher. I need to be recognised as a professional," said John Molebedi, a high school teacher who said he lives in low-income public housing.
"As teachers we are hungry and angry. We need money," he said as he marched in Pretoria. "A teacher can\’t even afford a house."
Patrick Craven, spokesman for the main labour body Cosatu, said at mid-day he was still waiting to receive reports from around South Africa on how many people had followed the strike call.
Police, doctors and other essential services were not on strike, but military doctors were on standby in case of disruptions at state hospitals.
Local media said many teachers appeared to have joined the strike, while government offices were providing limited services to people trying to collect passports or identity documents.
The government says the salary increase demanded is not possible without cutting other services, as it faces stiff public pressure to expand access to essential services like running water and electricity in poor neighbourhoods.
South Africa\’s unions are politically powerful and a key ally of the ruling African National Congress, but tensions have erupted over both wages and general economic policy.
Anger over the wage offer is fueled in part by what workers see as a flashy display of wealth by senior government officials.
"If we don\’t go on strike, the poor will always remain poorest," said a woman from the education department who asked not to be named. "The government, they are driving the expensive cars, they live in mansions, and we are living in shacks."
Unions played a key role in the struggle against the white-minority apartheid government, which also gives them special stature in society.
Three years ago, hundreds of thousands of public workers staged a crippling four-week strike that led to the closure of schools and hospitals running skeleton services with the help of army medics and civilian volunteers.
That strike was both the longest and most widespread since the end of the whites-only apartheid regime in 1994, and analysts believe the government is keen to avoid a repeat of that stoppage.