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Unions Threaten To Bring South Africa to a Standstill

Tens of thousands public sector workers are demonstrating in major centers across South Africa to highlight their rejection of a government pay offer and their plan to embark on an indefinite strike starting June 1. VOA's Delia Robertson has more from our bureau in Johannesburg.

Last week 16 unions, representing about one million government employees, rejected a four-year wage package offered by the government. The package includes an across the board six percent salary hike this year. But the unions are demanding a 12 percent increase, and they want wages and employment conditions negotiated each year.

The unions are also demanding that the government reduce from 16 to five the number of grades in public service.

Steven Friedman, visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University, says unions are seeking to significantly narrow wage gaps in the public service.

"The union view is that you want a more egalitarian civil service, and therefore it should be a goal of public policy to narrow the gap between the highest-paid public servants and the lowest," he said.

The public service in South Africa continues to face many challenges, including a shortage of skilled workers, corruption, and its failure to deliver necessary services.

In addition, professional personnel, especially in the education and health sectors, have been leaving public service. Analyst Friedman says that one aim of the government's wage package is to provide more money to attract highly skilled professionals.

"The government view is that you prioritize top jobs, because you want to attract skills and you want to attract top people into the public service, and the only way you can do that is by expanding salaries at the top," said Friedman.

The unions argue that the answer is not to lure more highly skilled staff with better pay. They say, instead, there should be job protection, annual wage hikes, programs to rapidly fill vacant posts, and egalitarian wages.

At the Pretoria demonstration Friday, Public Services Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi was whisked away by security staff after receiving a memorandum listing demands from representatives of the hostile crowd, estimated at 30,000.

Next week, Fraser-Moleketi's team will meet with union leaders in an attempt to reach an agreement and ward off a national strike.