JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A nationwide strike by 1.3 million government workers — now in its third week — has brought to a standstill many of South Africa's schools and hospitals.
The strike of public sector workers, including teachers, nurses, immigration officers and most other government employees, is for higher wages and benefits and threatens to become the most serious work stoppage since the end of apartheid in 1994.
The strike is also a battle for the political high ground in the country.
Government hospitals across the country are closed or operating with skeleton staffs including 3,000 military medical officers deployed to strategic hospitals. Several patients have died because of the reduced medical care, according to local news reports.
Strikers allegedly stabbed a non-striking nurse at Northdale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg a week ago and in Bloemfontein a fire is alleged to have been set by strikers.
Police have fired rubber bullets into striking workers, and hundreds of incidents of violence on the part of workers are being investigated by the courts. Schools are closed, exams are being missed, and there is no end in sight.
The country that so successfully hosted the World Cup of soccer has seen its government business crippled. The real estate business is hampered because government clerks are not processing housing clearance certificates. The immigration office is not issuing work permits, passports or travel documents.
The car manufacturing industry, the biggest in Africa, shut down as well when the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) joined the strike on Aug. 30.
Nevertheless, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, said last week that the strike would not have a major economic impact.
This seems like hopeful thinking, since any pay increase would likely increase the South African government's spending by 1 to 2 percent and would increase the national deficit significantly. If the strike carries on for much longer, there is every reason to expect economic growth will indeed suffer.
South Africa's strong labor unions helped to bring about the end of apartheid to bring the ANC party to power. But now their demands for higher wages are often cited by potential foreign investors as a reason to avoid South Africa, depriving the nation of much-needed foreign direct investment.
In this country of almost 50 million people, unemployment runs at roughly 30 percent and inflation is about 4.2 percent. The unions are asking the government for an 8.6 percent rise in yearly take-home pay, more than double the inflation rate. The government has offered a 7.5 percent rise but the strikers are holding out for the remaining 1.1 percent and vow they will continue to do so.
The strike hits South Africa just as it was recovering from the worldwide recession.
Wages in South Africa are relatively low and living standards of workers are bad. Many black workers, especially trade union members, are angry that their lives have not improved significantly since the end of apartheid. More than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to surveys.
The strike also comes at a sensitive time, when opposition to President Jacob Zuma's government has grown, giving the work stoppage deeper political implications.
Zwelenzima Vavi, the head of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is pushing the ANC government to implement more socialist policies to improve the lives of workers. He has also called for the government to crack down on corruption and cronyism.
Cosatu is a key supporter of the ANC party along with the South African Communist Party. But both the labor unions and the Communist Party are becoming increasingly angry with the ANC's pro-business policies.
Cosatu is arguably the most powerful organization in the country and boasts a membership of more than 2 million. Vavi is at loggerheads with alliance partner the ANC over economic policy, media regulation and what some have called "the soul of the nation."
Within this context, the strike is a show of power by Cosatu ahead of the ANC General Conference starting on September 20th.
"We will not make the mistake of voting into power our worst political butchers," said Vavi recently.
"We have nothing to celebrate. We lost more than 1.1 million jobs. As a result, 5.5 million South Africans have been pushed into poverty," Vavi said recently, reported the AFP news agency.
He has publicly lambasted Zuma for allowing corruption, especially in high profile cases of government ministers and his son Duduzane, who has reportedly amassed a fortune. Such criticism of the ANC by a trade union leader is a public break that last surfaced in 2001.
The test of whether or not the trade unions will continue to support the ANC may come later in September at the party's National General Council. Without the support of Cosatu the ANC will struggle to lead to country.
The more likely scenario, according to local experts, is that Cosatu may try to force the ANC to change its direction. This may mean eventually replacing Zuma with his short-term predecessor, Kgalema Motlanthe, who is seen as above the fray, uncorrupt, and much more reliable as a leader by both business and labor.
The strike may ultimately decide more than the take home pay of a teacher or nurse. Less than a cry for more money, social commentators suggest the strike's greater implications are about what kind of country South Africa's black majority wants and who they want to lead it.