Unions suspend South African civil service strike

Published September 7, 2010

CENTURION, South Africa – South African civil servants unions are suspending a nationwide strike for higher wages to give members time to consider the government's latest offer, labor leaders said Monday.

At a news conference on the 20th day of a strike that has crippled hospitals and schools in Africa's most vibrant economy, Chris Klopper, who leads a coalition of government worker unions, said the suspension was immediate.

"We want workers to return to work as soon as possible, and that means tomorrow," Klopper said.

Earlier, Thobile Ntola, president of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, broke the news to red-shirted members of his union gathered at the gates of the complex where leaders had come to the suspension decision. The members shouted in protest when Ntola told them numbers at the picket lines were dropping.

"There comes a time in any strike in which we must weigh our options," Ntola said.

The government responded to the move by saying in a statement it was "optimistic that a final position of the unions will soon remove the cloud of doubt and uncertainty that continues to engulf the nation."

In a joint statement, some two dozen unions said the strike produced a victory for labor, saying the government had moved from offering a 5.2 percent wage increase to 7.5. Unions want 8.6.

When the government made its 7.5 percent offer last week, union leaders said their members had rejected it. Then they said they needed more time to more fully explain the offer to workers.

The South African public has shown increasing impatience with the strike, which has sometimes been violent.

Nurses who have crossed picket lines at hospitals have been beaten by striking colleagues. Volunteers and army medics have been called in to help at hospitals, and some of the most fragile patients have been moved to private hospitals.

Students in their final year are worried they will not be able to graduate on time. Judges have told jailed suspects their pleas for bail cannot be heard for want of interpreters and other court staff.

Ntola told reporters it was the government, not the workers, who had caused the strike. He said President Jacob Zuma went on an international trip instead of showing leadership when talks stalled.

"What has the president done? He has left the country and gone to China," Ntola said.

On returning at the end of August from a trip at which he sealed business deals, Zuma called on negotiators to resume talks. The new government offer came soon after.

Ntola rejected criticism that the strike could hurt South Africa's reputation among potential foreign investors. He said economic growth must be built on good wages for those providing government services.

He also said Cabinet ministers and top officials should forgo their own raises.

"Our demands are genuine," he said. "The inequalities in this country are very vast, and they need to be closed."

Written by DONNA BRYSON, Associated Press Writer

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