As the national strike by more than 700,000 South African teachers, nurses, health workers and other public servants entered its fourth week on June 22, the African National Congress (ANC) government steadfastly refused to seriously revise its miserly pay offer. President Thabo Mbeki knows that if his neoliberal, pro-big business regime relents and grants the public-sector workers a much-needed above-inflation pay increase, it will embolden the country's private-sector workers to fight for a similar rise.
Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) public-sector affiliates, together with non-COSATU public servants' unions, launched a national strike on June 1 for a 12% wage boost, better housing and medical allowances, and a 30% increase in the minimum annual pay for public servants. Public servants' pay, especially that of the lowest paid, has fallen behind increases in food prices and housing costs for a decade. While the striking unions have reduced their pay demand from 12% to 9% over the course of the strike, the government has only revised its offer by a paltry 1.5%, to a conditional 7.5%.
On June 20, the ANC government's public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi issued a "take it or lose it" ultimatum: accept the government's final "settlement offer" of a 7.5% wage increase, a minor improvement to the housing allowance, an increase to the minimum wage for 29,000 public servants and the withdrawal of dismissal notices. However, if the unions reject it, the government will revert to an earlier "offer" of 7.25% and no other improvements or concessions.
The government hopes to starve the strikers back to work after forcing them to go without pay for more than three weeks. The strike is the longest national public-sector strike in South Africa's history. Yet many workers remain determined not to buckle. Gertrude Mmabatho, a messenger who is now selling oranges on the roadside to survive, told Reuters on June 20, "We can't struggle like this for a long time and not get anything out of it". COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi warned on June 18 that "there is no sign that workers are getting tired, instead they are more angry", adding that "we will not settle for anything that will make members feel that all the … days that they put in … have been for nothing".
The largest of the 17 striking unions, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), has already rejected the ultimatum. Other unions say they will refer the package back to their members for a decision.
As hundreds of thousands of workers joined a solidarity strike against the ANC government on June 13, Mbeki chose to open a gathering of the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, attended by some of the world's richest and most powerful capitalists and their toadie politicians. The strike was to protest the government's sacking of striking health workers, its deployment of army strikebreakers and police violence against strikers.
The ANC government has now issued around 3000 dismissal notices to health workers, sparking outrage among workers and others. In Soweto, near Johannesburg, a mass picket was held outside the huge Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital on June 18 to protest the sacking of 40 workers there. Unionists were joined by activists involved in campaigns against the government's cutting of poor people's electricity and water services.
On June 15, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which has led the mass action campaign to demand that the government provide anti-HIV/AIDS medicines to all who require them, applied to the Cape Town High Court to have the government's sacking of 41 health workers from a clinic in Khayelitsha, near Cape Town, reversed. About 30% of mothers-to-be in the township are HIV-positive. The dismissals were a violation of patients' constitutional rights to life and dignity, the TAC's Mandla Majola argued, and were an "unlawful and unreasonable curtailment of health services" as guaranteed by the constitution. Until the sackings, the clinic was providing minimum essential services to patients.
Meanwhile, strikers have continued to face attacks. On June 19, police fired rubber bullets to disperse picketers at the Gauteng education department building in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. On June 21, teachers picketing Westville Boys High School in Durban were fired upon by police and private security guards, then arrested.