Thu, Jun 14, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Dragging S Africa public service strike disrupting millions

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , JOHANNESBURG

A countrywide strike by South Africa's public-service unions lumbered into its 12th day on Tuesday, shuttering schools, crippling hospitals and hamstringing courts -- but not shifting President Thabo Mbeki's government far toward a settlement.

The standoff mirrors South Africa's political situation, which pits a stoic Mbeki against left-leaning unions that accuse him of betraying the nation's vast lower class.

The two forces will clash later this year when the dominant political party, the African National Congress, convenes to choose a new president, an act tantamount to selecting South Africa's next ruler.

The strike so far has inconvenienced millions of South African adults and children girding for midyear exams but has done little lasting damage. If hundreds of thousands of municipal workers desert their jobs in sympathy with the strikers, things could change.

"They have the responsibility for picking up trash, for keeping the city power going," said Duncan Innes, an independent labor analyst in Johannesburg. "If they go out, it could be quite disruptive."

The strike was called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), an amalgam of 1.8 million workers, most employed by national, provincial or local governments. The unions demanded a 12 percent salary increase and other benefits but lowered their wage demand to a 10 percent increase.

During the talks, the government raised its initial offer of a 6 percent increase to 6.5 percent. It was expected to make a new offer when negotiations resumed late yesterday.

The walkout, which the union says includes 700,000 of its members, has been confined largely to teachers, hospital workers and some government functionaries like court orderlies and stenographers. Public schools have been shut since the strike began, and some private schools began closing this week as strikers threatened to picket them.

The government has fired thousands of striking nurses, saying they violated a constitutional ban on strikes by essential workers, and has deployed army medical workers in public hospitals.

Violence has been limited. But Mbeki was angered on Monday when the general secretary of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, warned that very soon the strike would turn violent.

Patrick Craven, the spokesman for COSATU, said in an interview that "the unions are absolutely committed to keeping this strike peaceful, legal and disciplined."

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