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Saturday, July 31, 1999 Published at 02:55 GMT 03:55 UK

World: Africa

SA pay strike escalates

Unions want a 10% pay increase, but only 6% is on offer

Public sector workers in South Africa have stepped up their campaign of industrial action over pay with nationwide protests involving hundreds of thousands of people.

The government estimated about half the nation's 320,000 teachers heeded the strike call by the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Bheki Khumalo, a spokesman for education authorities, said schools in impoverished black townships were hardest hit by the teachers' action.

[ image: President Thabo Mbeki: First test]
President Thabo Mbeki: First test
About 10,000 people blocked traffic in Pretoria, where the government is based, and there were rallies and marches in several other cities.

The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union said 65,000 of its members staged a national go-slow on Friday, with many picketing prisons and police precincts.

Health workers also joined the campaign, which is protesting at the government's refusal to grant workers a 10% wage rise.

The government has refused to pay more than a 6.15% increase.

The South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) threatened that its 200,000 teachers would extend their action until Tuesday unless the pay demand was met.

So far there has been no sign that the government is going to increase its wage offer to the strikers.

Quiet day

The first day of industrial action passed quietly, with few disruptions to essential services.

The action was most evident in schools, where many teachers stayed away, and others went to their classrooms to explain the reasons for the strike to their pupils.

Workers forfeited a day's wages by joining the strike.

Hospitals were working fairly normally, while police and prison officers did not strike, following warnings from management that it was illegal for policemen to walk out.

The strike, which follows protest marches by some 50,000 workers across South Africa last week, comes as a tough test for the six-week-old government of President Thabo Mbeki which is planning to cut jobs in the civil service.

The government, which claims public services will be adversely affected if it has to pay higher increases, has so far stood firm, only marginally increasing its original 5.7% offer to 6.15%.

BBC Correspondent in Johannesburg Greg Barrow says despite a long history of partnership between the unions and the African National Congress government, relations have been strained by the government's refusal to meet the 10% demand.

The strike is the latest in a series of labour problems, as mining companies prepare to lay off thousands of workers following the drop in the world gold price, and up to 27,000 railway jobs and 30,000 building industry jobs are forecast to be cut.

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