South African strikers protest against 'anti-labour' policies


SOUTH AFRICA:Thousands of striking public service workers took to the streets yesterday in a show of force against the South African government's alleged "anti-labour" policies.

The trade union umbrella group Cosatu warned that unionised police and soldiers were set to join the national strike, now entering its second week.

In central Johannesburg, an estimated 15,000 union supporters chanted slogans denouncing President Thabo Mbeki who is perceived by left-wing factions as having neglected the poor and the working class.

Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban saw similar mass demonstrations. Anticipated public violence and disorder failed to materialise, although there were isolated incidents of intimidation at schools and healthcare facilities. Strikers marched through some wards and threatened staff.

Public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi accused union leaders of misinforming their members about the government's pay offer - which has risen to 7.25 per cent from an original 6.5 per cent.

The unions, which collectively represent about 60 per cent of the country's nearly one million public servants, have in turn lowered their demand from 12 per cent to 10 per cent.

But Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said, "We are not moving back, not one inch". Speaking to picketing workers outside parliament in Cape Town, he said: "The government has a choice: do they see a long winter or do they want to settle?"

About 4,000 protesters marched to parliament, seeking to hand over a memorandum of grievances to the government. A representative failed to appear at the gates, however, and union leaders refused an offer to go inside without their supporters.

Some of the workers carried a makeshift coffin with a picture of Ms Fraser-Moleketi. A slogan read "RIP Geraldine . . . Rest in Peace with your 7.25 per cent".

The demonstrations coincided with a one-day sympathy strike by municipal workers.

Mr Vavi warned if the government allowed the strike to continue there would be violence. "Workers will soon be angry, they will be frustrated, and they will see anybody going to work, irrespective of how genuine their reasons are, as basically betraying their cause," he said.

But Mr Mbeki, engaged in a broader struggle against left-wing elements in the ruling African National Congress, said union leaders had an obligation to rein in members who engaged in "thuggery" or other "unacceptable criminal activities".