Hundreds of thousands of South African public sector workers went on strike on Thursday in the largest industrial action witnessed in the country in the last decade.
The workers, including teachers, nurses and policemen from eight public sector unions, had rejected a six-percent wage increase offer by the government, demanding a seven-percent rise. Earlier on Thursday, the unions rejected a final proposal from Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi to form a task team to resolve the dispute.
Besides the seven-percent pay increase, the unions are demanding a universal medical aid and housing allowance, with a review of a pay progression system that links salaries to inflation for the next two years.
According to the South African Democratic Teachers' Union, 700,000 public sector workers, almost half of them teachers, stayed away from work on Thursday.
Patrick Craven, a spokesperson for the country's labour federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), said between 50,000 and 100,000 workers marched in the capital, Pretoria, in a "show of unprecedented solidarity across the board".
Madoda Mxakwe, a spokesperson for the department of public service and administration, told IRIN, "The strike action had no impact on the critical services - health, correctional and police - only large numbers of teachers stayed away."
Teachers were also seen outside private schools in Johannesburg with placards proclaiming "Save our teachers" in a show of support for striking educators. Public sector workers took part in 25 marches in major cities and towns across the country.
Fikile Majola, secretary-general of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), the largest public sector workers' union, described the strike "as an overwhelming success".
Trade union officials told IRIN that following the show of strength in the strike action, government had indicated it was willing to negotiate.
Majola said an urgent meeting had been called for Friday by the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council, a forum for negotiations between government and its employees. Craven said Fraser-Moleketi had indicated she was willing to reopen talks.
However, Mxakwe said that while the government "respected the right of the workers to engage in industrial action, 'no work no pay' will apply. We believe the strike action was unnecessary while negotiations were still ongoing."
South Africa's public sector employs 1.1 million people, of which a million are unionised. The current wage dispute began in April this year, with government offering a 4.4-percent increase, against the union's demand for a 12-percent hike.
Both sides compromised in June, when the government raised its offer to 5.5 percent and unions lowered their demand to seven percent.
Following protests, government drew up yet another offer of a six-percent increase, effective this year, and a pay increase in line with inflation for 2005 and 2006. The unions rejected the offer, insisting on the seven-percent increase this year and the right to negotiate salary increases for the following two years.