JOHANNESBURG — Government and industry are bracing for the worst industrial action in South African history as private-sector unions prepare to join government workers on strike.
The general strike, in its second week, has shut down most state schools and hospitals. Ambulance crews in Johannesburg say several patients have died in transit because no health facilities were open to accept them.
Police unions, legally barred from striking, have said they may take industrial action to support the workers. Courts have closed across the nation.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has lowered its demanded wage rise from 12 percent and says it would accept a 10 percent increase for state employees. The government has offered 7.5 percent, slightly above the rate of inflation.
Some analysts think the strike — which is expected to put 2 million people on the streets tomorrow — has less to do with wages than with COSATU's flexing its political muscle.
By the end of this year, the ruling African National Congress must choose a successor to President Thabo Mbeki, now serving the last of his two terms allowed by the constitution, and unions have made clear that they want a say in choosing the next head of state.
In secret negotiations between the parties, the government has agreed to look at salary structures, health insurance and other benefits, but COSATU Secretary-General Zwelinzima Vavi said the offer was unlikely to avert the nationwide shutdown.
In a speech yesterday, Mr. Vavi argued that many people had been abandoned by economic growth that accelerated to its fastest rate in decades.
"Unemployment still runs close to 40 percent, and the majority of households remain under the poverty line," he said. "Some 54 percent of all people employed in the formal economy still earn less than [$345] a month and just over 16 percent earn less than [$70].
"Virtually all employment creation in the past five years has occurred in the informal sector, construction and retail. These jobs are generally casual and poorly paid," he said.
Unions say low-paid workers spend up to a quarter of their salaries on transportation, and bus fares have jumped by a third in the past year because of rising gasoline prices. This, they say, means that pay raises linked to the inflation rate are unfair to the poor.
"I have a wife and two children and I get [$125] a month. My transport to work is [$1.25] each way so it would cost me nearly half my wages a month if I rode to work," said Mandla Magubane, a gardener.
"Instead, I get up at 5 in the morning and leave home at 6 and walk for 90 minutes. At night, sometimes I only make it back around 8 p.m."
Speaking at his one-room dwelling in Thembisa, a shantytown less than four miles from Johannesburg's wealthiest suburbs, Mr. Magubane accused the government of being out of touch with the poor.
"The ministers know the price of a new Mercedes, but not the bus fare to a black township," he said. "I am not on strike because I can't lose my job, but I support those who are fighting, The ANC must wake up. We are dying of cold and hunger."
The government has called in police and thousands of troops to maintain security at hospitals and schools after strikers threatened essential service workers who had not stopped working.
The government last week threatened to fire striking nurses and yesterday began handing out dismissal notices to hospital staff. But nurses maintained their protest outside Johannesburg"s Baragwanath Hospital, the largest in Africa.
COSATU President Willie Madisha called the firings "a joke."
"We will make sure that no one is dismissed," he said.
Mr. Madisha said that even if the government yields to unions' demand for a 10 percent wage rise, COSATU will not accept any offer until all workers are reinstated.
"We are not talking re-employment. We are talking about them going back to work," he told a group of striking nurses in Pretoria. "What the government is doing now is taking them out of work and then re-employing them so that they start from the beginning. That is wrong. We cannot allow that," he said.