Army steps into the breach

The army has deployed more 1,800 medical staff to 47 public hospitals throughout South Africa to substitute for striking doctors and nurses as the nine-day industrial action becomes increasingly ill-tempered.

Thousands of public servants marched in South African cities on 26 August, pushing for an 8.6 percent salary increase and a R1,000 (US$136) housing allowance, which the government has steadfastly refused, citing public spending limitations, and has offered a 7 percent raise and R700 ($95) in housing allowance. Inflation is at 3.7 percent.

Simpiwe Dlamini, spokesman for the South African National Defence Force, told IRIN that more than 2,800 personnel had been deployed to medical facilities, of which 1,800 were providing direct medical assistance, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

It was "far from the truth", he said, that a call for a national strike in support of public sector workers would see army medical staff withdrawing their services. The army maintained a "huge capacity" to deploy more medical staff to hospitals, if required, and they were on standby.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the country's largest union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), told a rally in Johannesburg: "All COSATU unions will be organizing all their workers to issue notices to employers that they will be joining the public sector strike."

In terms of South African labour law, workers can give seven days' notice to embark on secondary strike action in support of other workers' demands. Should the call for a general strike be heeded, the industrial action, which has so far not had a debilitating economic impact, would spill over into the private sector.

Unionists have threatened "total anarchy", and the strike has already resulted in numerous incidents of violence and intimidation, such as strikers blocking patients from entering medical facilities - an action described by health minister Aaron Motsoaledi as tantamount "to murder".

''It is critical for the strike to end immediately, as lives are being lost''

"Our major concern is to protect life, and ensure that patients get the care they need," Motsoaledi told parliament. "It is critical for the strike to end immediately, as lives are being lost."

There has been a flurry of court rulings against acts of intimidation and crimes of violence, and on 26 August the Labour Court granted an interim interdict preventing members of the SA Police Service (SAPS) from embarking on strike action.

School disruptions

Mugwena Maluleke, secretary general of the 240,000-strong South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), told IRIN that the strike had closed about 26,000 schools, affecting more than two million learners. "There is never a good time to strike in education - even if we striked in January, it will have affected learners," he commented.

The strike by teachers, after an extraordinary six-week holiday to accommodate hosting the soccer world cup, has thrown the year-end examinations into disarray. Preliminary examinations for the final school-leaving certificate examinations (Matric) in November are scheduled to begin in the next few weeks, but positions on both sides appear to be hardening.

Maluleke said the strike was about "bread and butter" issues and not politics - on average a teacher earns about R9,400 ($1,285) per month before deductions - and if the pay increase is won, the average salary would rise to about R11,000 ($1,500) per month.

COSATU is an alliance partner of the ruling African National Congress. Labour's support of Jacob Zuma is seen as pivotal in his election as president of the ANC, and then as President of South Africa, after he was fired by former President Thabo Mbeki on allegations of corruption.