PRETORIA, August 6 – Thousands protested in South Africa on Wednesday as workers disrupted gold mining and other major industries in a national strike over price hikes rattling the continent’s economic powerhouse.
A sea of protesting workers filled the streets of the capital as they made their way to President Thabo Mbeki’s office, carrying signs and chanting while demanding action over the rising cost of living.
Public transport shut down countrywide, trade unions said, while there were reports of roads barricaded by burning tyres in the south and low worker turnout for the key mining industry.
"We are taking this town," one speaker told demonstrators at a rally in Pretoria.
Others said high prices were further hurting the poor in a country where around 40 percent of the estimated 48 million people are unemployed and more than four million are believed to be living in dire poverty.
"The prices must come down," said 16-year-old Dutch Thomas, among the protesters in Pretoria, adding that his mother was struggling with the increases.
"It will force me to steal in order to survive because of these high prices."
There were widespread reports of low worker turnout, with some companies shutting down for the day.
"There is no public transport. The mining industry is closing down," said Patrick Craven, spokesman for trade union federation COSATU, a junior partner in President Thabo Mbeki’s governing coalition.
Gold Fields, South Africa’s largest gold producer, said worker turnout ranged from between seven and 40 percent, while Volkswagen closed its plant in the southeastern city of Port Elizabeth.
Long lines of people waited for buses and taxis in the economic capital of Johannesburg.
"We’ve been waiting here for about three hours," said Tebogo Molokwane, 21, who had tried to attend her computer class but the school was closed.
"I do support the message, not the strike. They shouldn’t have stopped the transport."
Nearly two million members of 21 trade unions in the private and public sectors had been mobilised to march in major cities across the country, according to COSATU.
Those in the capital handed a list of demands to the government’s Energy Department centering on electricity.
The cost of power cuts should not be borne by the poor, the list said, while also calling for an energy efficiency campaign.
"The issues they raised are not populist — they are realistic and they are surmountable," Bheki Khumalo, a spokesman for the department who received the list, told AFP.
The strike followed smaller regional protests in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s action after a recent move by energy giant Eskom to raise electricity prices for the second time since December, amounting to an average hike of 27.5 percent.
It also comes as prices have risen sharply for many basic goods, mirroring trends that have occurred both regionally and across the world.
The country’s growth in the first quarter measured 2.1 percent on a 12-month basis, down sharply from 5.3 percent in the last quarter of 2007, government statistics show. Inflation was 12.2 percent in June.
An electricity crisis earlier this year brought the mining industry to a halt, with shortages leading to severe blackouts.
The National Union of Mineworkers, the largest of COSATU’s affiliates with 320,000 members, said the mining industry would come to a standstill on Wednesday.
Economists cast doubt on what effect the strike could have.
Professor Carel van Aardt of the Bureau of Market Research said reasons for the strike were understandable, but mass action was not the best solution.
"I just believe the costs far outweigh the benefits," he said of the strike.
"On the other hand, if we ignore the plight of the poor people we’re going to do it at our peril because this is a cry from the working and poor classes to do something dramatic."