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Zuma orders talks to end strike

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 30 – South African President Jacob Zuma has ordered his ministers to immediately negotiate an end to a 13-day-old public service strike, his office said Monday, days before it threatens to embroil the pivotal mining sector.

Zuma met with ministers at the weekend "and he instructed them to immediately go back to the negotiating table," the president\’s spokesman Zizi Kodwa told AFP.

South Africa\’s 1.3 million strong public service went on open-ended strike on August 18, shutting down schools and hospitals, with 320,000 workers in the sensitive mining sector set to down tools on Thursday.

"In the interest of the country, the strike must be resolved," Kodwa told local media as the strike entered its third week.

The new talks will attempt to break a deadlock over wages with workers digging their heels in until the state meets union demands for better pay.

In a sign of growing government impatience, Zuma lashed out at striking health and education workers in a speech at the weekend, following his return from a state visit to China.

"The abandonment of patients, including babies in incubators, as well as schoolchildren, is difficult to comprehend and accept, no matter how sympathetic one is to the needs of workers," said the president.

"We are confident that negotiators on both sides will find a solution soon, and help the country to get out of this unpleasant situation as quickly as possible," he said.

Army doctors and nurses have been called in to provide essential medical back-up in 58 hospitals across the country.

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Adding to the pressure is the threat by the powerful National Union of Mineworkers to hold a one-day strike on Thursday in sympathy with the public service wage claims.

Tyre workers were set to strike in three provinces on Monday.

The country\’s main labour federation Cosatu has called on all of its affiliates to join the strike on Thursday, but welcomed Zuma\’s instructions to his ministers.

"The federation hopes that an improved offer will now be tabled and that the strike can be settled as quickly as possible, through an agreement that is acceptable to the workers," said Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven.

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

The industrial action has created a political headache for Zuma, who rose to power on a wave of support from unions that are now pressuring his African National Congress (ANC) government to adopt more pro-labour economic policies.

Anger over the wage offer is fuelled in part by what workers see as conspicuous spending on luxuries like cars by senior government officials.

Zuma\’s government, however, says its priority is creating new jobs rather than delivering hefty increases to current workers.

The unions\’ wage demand is more than twice the rate of inflation, which the government says would force cuts in public services that already struggle to meet demand.

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