South African police have used rubber bullets and water cannons against teachers taking part in a nationwide civil servants’ strike outside a Soweto hospital in Johannesburg. The violence erupted on Thursday morning, the second day of the strike which has been called to demand higher wages.
Teachers in the red T-shirts of their union threw bricks and stones at police who fired to stop them from entering the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. At least one officer was reported to have been injured as well as several protesters.
About 150 health workers had tried to enter the 3,000-bed hospital on Thursday Police used water cannons and rubber bullets to push back protesters, a scene local media said was repeated at a second hospital across the city. Striking teachers say they plan to blockade a major highway later in the day.
Police were already lining nearby roads ahead of the protest. Health workers, like police and immigration agents, are considered essential services and not allowed to strike. But support staff at hospitals have joined the strike. “Some people were hit in their legs, some in their bodies. Some of the people were hurt [by the rubber bullets],” Hamilton Maswanganyi, a hospital gardener, said. He said strikers were upset that their colleagues were still working inside. “We wanted to talk to them but the police doesn’t allow us,” he said.
Public sector unions are demanding an 8.6 per cent wage increase – more than twice the rate of inflation – and a monthly housing allowance of $137. The government on Thursday signed its last offer of a seven per cent increase plus $96 for housing, which will cost the state $687m.
The public services ministry says the deal will be implemented unilaterally if unions fail to sign on within 21 days.
About 1.3 million South African state workers began an open-ended strike on Wednesday in a move that threatens to paralyse Africa’s biggest economy. So far protests have been limited to small groups picketing outside schools and hospitals.
Those on strike include police, healthcare workers, teachers and customs officials. Essential services are expected to be maintained through skeleton staffing.
One hospital clerical worker said she was sticking with the strike because her salary is not sufficient enough for her to live in a house.
“It’s difficult. I’m living in a shack. I can’t afford to buy a house,” she said, asking not to be named.
Jacob Zuma, the South African president, is under pressure to provide expanded access to housing, water and electricity for the poorest South Africans. The country’s unions are politically powerful and a key ally of Zuma’s ruling African National Congress, but tensions have erupted over both wages and general economic policy.
Anger over the wage offer is fuelled in part by what workers see as an open display of wealth by senior government officials on expensive cars and hotel bills. Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from Soweto, said the unions, as a result, do not believe the government when it says that it has no money. “They say they see politicians living lavish lifestyles, they question why there was money for the football World Cup [staged in South Africa] and say they are tired of corruption allegations in government departments and that they will not put up with it anymore,” she said.
The last big public sector strike in South Africa took place in 2007 when a four-week strike by 600,000 state workers cost the economy several million lost working-days, discouraged investors and angered the public.