South Africa Police, State Workers Clash on Strike’s Third Day

August 20

Aug. 20 (Bloomberg) — South African police clashed with state workers who protested outside government buildings as a wage strike entered its third day.

Police used water cannons to disperse protesters at Johannesburg’s Helen Joseph hospital today, according to video televised by Cape Town-based e News Channel. Officers broke up a group of strikers who blocked roads to a hospital and a courthouse and in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province’s town of Chatsworth, police said.

“We have got our crowd-management teams deployed in all nine provinces,” police spokesman Phuti Setati said in a telephone interview from Pretoria. “Those who are breaking the law will be dealt with. We have got to protect lives and property.” Officers are still investigating incidents of violence, he said.

While state employees are demanding an 8.6 percent increase in pay and a housing allowance of 1,000 rand ($136) a month, the government says it can’t afford to raise its offer of a 7 percent increase and a 700 rand allowance. South Africa’s annual inflation rate is currently 4.2 percent.

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference expressed “horror at the incidences of violence and intimidation perpetrated by participants” in the strike.

“In particular we abhor the inhuman conduct of denying doctors and patients access to hospitals and teachers and pupils access to their schools,” the group said today in a statement issued to the South African Press Association. “Care is being denied to the weakest and most vulnerable.”

Soweto Hospital

Police fired rubber bullets yesterday to disperse workers who entered the grounds of the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto township, south of Johannesburg, police spokeswoman Nondumiso Mpantsha said.

Union officials are due to meet with Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi at 2 p.m. local time today to discuss ways of resolving the impasse, Chris Klopper, chairman of the Independent Labor Caucus, which includes 10 unions representing 460,000 workers, said by telephone from Pretoria.

Unions representing about 1.3 million state workers say their members can’t survive on their current salaries and that the strike will continue until their demands are met.

“The strike will be intensifying all around the country,” Sizwe Pamla, a spokesman for the 250,000-member National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, said today in an interview. “Our members have reacted positively to calls for a strike.”

Struck in 2007

Government employees last struck in 2007, when schools, hospitals and immigration offices were disrupted for 29 days, the longest-ever walkout by state workers.

South African laws prevent strikes by certain categories of workers who provide essential services, accounting for about a third of state employees. Even so, many nurses have joined the labor action, said Fidel Hadebe, Health Ministry spokesman.

“The impact of the strike has been quite severe in a number of facilities,” he said today by telephone from Pretoria. The provinces of “Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Kwazulu- Natal have been worst-affected.”

Members of the South African Defense force were deployed to several hospitals to fill in for striking workers, while critically ill patients who were unable to access treatment at state facilities were transferred to private hospitals.

Several newspapers said patients had died because they had not been treated or received medication. The health department was still investigating the reports, Hadebe said.

‘Right to Strike’

“As much as we offer our condolences to those families, we don’t want our members to be blackmailed when they have a legitimate right to strike,” Pamla said. “Hospitals by their nature are places that people go to get saved, but it doesn’t always happen that way” and it can’t be proven that strikers caused the deaths, he said.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, representing 70,000 workers, said today that car and fuel retail-industry workers plan to strike from Sept. 1 after employers failed to meet their demands for a pay increase. Numsa members in the tire and rubber industries will begin a walkout on Aug. 30, the union said.

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