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Public Service Workers Strike in South Africa - 2004-09-16

A one-day nationwide strike of civil service workers in South Africa has brought education to a standstill and affected many other state agencies. Tens of thousands of civil services workers participated in protest marches across the country.

Union leaders have hailed the strike as a resounding success, with some saying as many as 700,000 workers walked off the job Thursday.

However, police, health and prison departments say that they have not experienced disruptions and that most workers have reported for duty. Striking is illegal for employees of these designated essential services.

However, most teachers have supported the strike and for the first time all but one teachers' union voted for strike action. Teacher Rapula Samuel, says it helps their cause when both black and white unions work together.

"Ja [yes], this year for the very first time all the unions agree on mass action, so I think its more powerful than other years," said Rapula Samuel.

The lowest paid primary school teachers earn $465 per month, while the highest paid school principals earn $2,230 per month. They say their annual increases since 1996 have not kept pace with inflation. In that period, annual increases have ranged between five and eight percent, with the lowest paid teachers receiving the highest increases.

But Mr. Samuel says that he still struggles to achieve basic goals such as owning his own home.

"The problem is the government is so stubborn," he said. "Because we are working, I have been a teacher for about 12 years now, but my living hasn't yet improved, I'm still suffering, I can't buy a car, I can't afford to buy a house. So we are struggling really."

Negotiations with civil service unions began in April and deadlocked this week with the unions insisting on a seven percent increase and the right to renegotiate increases each year for the next two years. The government offered six percent plus an additional performance linked one percent and increases pegged to inflation for the next two years.

The parties are expected to return to the negotiating table Friday, but some union leaders have warned that unless the government is more forthcoming strikes could continue throughout the coming summer.