The country’s biggest ever set of strikes started today as earlier negotiations for wage and benefit increases between unions and the government held in the first week of August failed to amount to much.
The timeline leading up to the strike has been marching forward relentlessly. On Thursday 29th July up to 210,000 members of the Public Servants Association (PSA) union held an initial demonstration against what they claim to be unfair working terms. With no deal being struck between government and union bosses, up to 900,000 workers in the public sector, including teachers, nurses, immigration officers, Home Office clerks and custom officials are now set to go forward with strike action on the 10th August [protected].
The workers demanded an 8.6% pay increase, a R1000 (UK £87.33) housing allowance, and standardised medical care subsidies. The African National Congress (ANC) – led government made an earlier offer of a 6.5% increase, and R630 (£55) housing allowance, which it insisted was enough. Then, on Friday 6th August, after protracted negotiations, the government made an offer of 7%. This latest offer was again rejected by workers.
Whether or not the government’s gambit or their assessment was correct, financially or morally speaking, economically, they couldn’t really afford to give much more.
Time has run out, however, for the 10 August strike to be averted. Secretary-General of the National Education, Health and Allied Worker’s Union (NEHAWU), Fikile Slovo Majola, confirmed that actions planned for the 10th August included pickets, marches and demonstrations, with national marches to be undertaken in Cape Town and Pretoria. Unions had resumed work in the first week of August after temporary action, trying from Monday August 2nd to get a mandate from their members on how to move forward. The commitment of members was critical, as any strikes affecting front-line services such as health care are illegal.
The government’s Public Service and Administration Minister, Richard Baloyi, had stated that he was still optimistic that an agreement could be reached, and was aiming for this to be done by Wednesday 4th August. However, despite Baloyi’s call for the Public Servant’s Association to be reasonable regarding the government’s offer, the vice president of the PSA Onika Lefifi resolutely called for a return to the negotiating table.
Also involved was the COSATU (Council of South African Trade Unions), historically perhaps one of the most powerful voices for worker’s issues in South Africa. A long-time stalwart of the ANC, forming part of what has been called the ‘tripartite alliance’ with the ANC and the SACP (South African Communist Party), the council and the government have nevertheless found themselves at odds on a number of occasions over the last few years. Baloyi and the ANC were hoping that COSATU’s efforts would work in their favour this time. However, when COSATU’s influential leader Zwelinzima Vavi revealed that his organisation would be pushing the ANC to improve its offer, perhaps the writing was already on the wall.
The threat of strikes has been on-going for some time now, leading up to the big one on the 10th. A recent strike by the workers of Transnet, the state transport company, is said to have significantly impacted the commodities and many key economic sectors, a factor which is not helped at all by a global decrease in demand for the raw materials on which so much of South Africa’s economy depend. Another earlier strike threat by workers from Eskom (the state energy supplier), made just before and threatening to disrupt the recent World Cup, resulted in a victory for the strikers and a wage increase of 9%.
These events, along with the tentative yet slow recovery from recession, and of course the massive expense of the recent World Cup, already give the ANC leadership enough to worry about. There was always an even bigger worry psychologically, however. South Africans and their leaders are now faced with a repeat of the momentous 2007 strike, which effectively brought services to a standstill. In that strike, then and now still the biggest official strike to take place in the country’s history, up to 700,000 workers took part.
Sectors such as teaching and health care were hit particularly hard. Even doctors were on strike. Although this action is illegal in the country, due to a prohibition on striking by front line service workers, the situation on the ground meant that picketing, threats, and even physical violence against non-striking workers left them little choice. In fact, the situation then was so bad that the government was asking members of the public to volunteer in hospitals, but with no training or supervision, and often hazardous conditions and a lack of equipment in South African government hospitals, the public was sceptical and the response poor, and the envisioned volunteers didn’t come forward in great numbers, leaving a great many patients with serious health concerns untreated. These strikes also disrupted teaching, with many students missing vital classes and exams, with many final-year students only being able to write exams or receive their grades months later, seriously interfering with their efforts to move on into work or further study. Suggestions are that hospital and front line staff may still report for work on Tuesday, but teachers will not. Either way, South Africa’s citizens can ill afford this strike.
Neither can its government. The larger potential scale of the currently looming strike is thus a serious cause for concern in the country. In short, the government’s claims that it couldn’t afford any wage increases are well founded. The government wage bill has increased two-fold over the last 5 years to nearly R260 billion (£22.7 billion). Massive debts still remain due to last month’s World Cup, with amounts spent on stadia and other costs estimated at up to R36.5 billion (£3.2 billion). Another effect of any wage increases could be to increase inflation. Until recently, inflation was shown to have slowed for a consecutive six-month period, to a June figure of 4.2%. However the South African Reserve Bank has set a stern target of keeping this figure in between 3-6% until the end of 2012, a target which would be hampered by the aforementioned inflationary pressures of wage hikes. Losing control of spending and debt after the country’s tentative recovery from recession is too risky.
South Africa’s public sector workers, along with so many of the country’s citizens, may arguably be living on less than what they deserve, a state of affairs which has to be sorted out in the country’s on-going democratic transition from apartheid. However, the unions and their members are taking a huge gamble with their actions. Recent history has shown not only what a massive public strike can do to a country, but also what the pursuit of a short-term financial goal by an interest group can do to an economy. Whether or not the strikers are in the right to ask for more pay, ironically, them and the country can ill afford their doing so [/protected].