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S. African Public Sector Strike Expands

Tens of thousands of workers marched Wednesday in major South African centers in support of a strike by public servants wanting a pay raise. VOA's Delia Robertson reports from Johannesburg that government workers were joined by sympathy strikers from other unions.

Union leaders said they would shut South Africa down, but support for a general stay-away was mixed, with most services functioning at a reduced level.

Strongest support came in KwaZulu-Natal, where taxi operators joined in the action, leaving many commuters without means of getting to work, even if they wished to do so.

Schools and hospitals are hardest hit, with most schools closed across the country. Many hospitals continue to refuse to accept new patients, and emergency cases are being referred to private facilities.

While the strike in its 13th day has been generally peaceful, there have has been some intimidation and violence reported at schools. Some teachers and students have been assaulted, and in an incident that may be linked to the strike, one teacher was shot dead in her home.

There have been reports from some hospitals that more very sick people are dying than is usual; and some family members say their relatives died because of a lack of care.

This week, the unions lowered their demand for a basic salary increase from 12 to 10 percent, and the government accepted a proposal from a mediator that includes a 7.25 percent increase.

Labor lawyer Priyesh Daya says he expects the parties to eventually meet somewhere between the two.

"Where I see this going is that both parties will meet in the middle. At this point there is 7.25 on the table, and the unions are asking for 10," he noted. "I would think maybe 8.5 would be that middle figure, that middle ground, that common ground that may be reached."

Daya, a director of the Wright, Rose-Innes firm in Johannesburg, notes that the current strike is the largest since 1994. He says it could drag on indefinitely unless both sides work hard toward finding common ground.

"I think both parties must just ensure that bargaining is always done in good faith, and that both parties commit to try to reach an understanding or compromise as soon as possible," he said.

The strike will likely give both parties an indication of their negotiating strength. Already, union leaders are calling for indefinite sympathy strikes from unions not involved in the current dispute. Talks are to resume Thursday.