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Strike Threatens to Cripple South African Public Service

South African public servants are set to put down their tools Wednesday following their rejection of a government pay offer.

Two major unions representing government employees across the spectrum, including teachers and health workers, have rejected the government offer of 7 percent plus a housing allowance of $95 per month. The unions want 8.6 percent and $135 per month housing allowance. In June, inflation was 4.2 percent.

Thobile Ntola, president of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union, SADTU, told a news conference the union has been negotiating for a year without success and has called the strike as a last resort. "This is the last weapon we use as workers, especially SADTU, we don't want to use this, we are reluctant to go to strike," he says, "but the state has pushed us."

The public sector unions represent about 1.3 million workers, and if all the unions go out on strike, government services across the country will largely come to a halt.

The strike is likely to severely impact education in the country as schools already lost two weeks earlier this year due to the soccer world cup. Experts say students cannot afford to lose any more school time this year.

Even though nurses are classified as essential workers who may not strike, nurses have also threatened to join the strike - a move that could cripple the already ailing public health care in the country.

In separate labor action, some 31,000 striking workers in the vehicle construction industry have shut down production at major vehicle manufacturing companies. They are demanding a pay rise of 15 percent, while the employers have offered 7 percent.

South Africa has an official unemployment rate of 25 percent.

A senior official told parliament Tuesday, the government was engaged in what he called "extremely strenuous" efforts to reach agreement with public sector unions.