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South Africa Strike Set to Expand

Thousands of public servants march to Parliament in Cape Town during their one-day strike to press for better salaries, 10 Aug 2010

As South Africa's public service strike enters its second week, the country's largest trades union federation has called for other unions to join the action unless the government accedes to wage demands.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions has urged member unions to stage secondary or sympathy strikes in support of striking public servants. The union representing municipal workers says its members will stage a one-day strike on Friday and the unions representing police officers, prison warders and military personnel have urged their members to engage in legal protest.

The unions are also targeting volunteers. Speaking at a news conference, COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi offered a thinly veiled threat to volunteers.

"Volunteering is equal to scabbing, and scabbing does deepen frustrations and anger amongst workers. This is what normally creates violence between workers on the strike and those seen by workers to be taking their jobs and undermining their legitimate demands," Vavi said.

The unions are smarting because the tide of public sympathy has turned against them. South Africans are especially angry at the widespread intimidation and violence perpetrated by protesting workers. But more than that, people are furious that patients have been prevented from entering hospitals or, like 53 seriously ill babies at one hospital, simply abandoned.

Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi told parliament such actions threaten the fabric of South African society.

"Long after this strike is forgotten we must still have health workers who are human beings, who you know if you leave your relatives there, you have got nothing to fear about," he said. "But what I have seen last week, my blood went chilly."

The African National Congress has rejected suggestions that President Jacob Zuma should intervene to resolve the crisis. The party general secretary told a news conference the strike was not a political matter and said unions are making the environment for a settlement impossible. COSATU is in a political alliance with the ANC.