Teachers, nurses and other public sector workers were back at work today after a strike that closed schools, paralysed hospitals and cost the lives of patients for three weeks was suspended.
President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress called the move by thousands of public sector workers “a step in the right direction in ensuring stability and normality in our public sector offerings," in particular in the education and health services.
The workers said that they will go back to work while continuing to think over the government's offer of a 7.5 per cent wage increase. The workers had been calling for an 8.6 per cent rise. And the two sides also disagreed about how much housing allowance they should get.
"We are not calling off the strike. We are suspending the strike," Thobela Ntola, teacher’s union president told a press conference.
The move will save the lives of hospital patients. The strike has badly damaged health and public services — for illnesses such as Aids and tuberculosis — that are vital to millions of poor people, who cannot afford the private hospitals and schools that many middle-class people use. Dr Norman Mabasa, chairman of the South African Medical Association, told the German Press Agency dpa he estimated "tens" of patients had died after being denied access to care or medication. "It can even go to a couple of hundred," he said, stressing how hard it is to prove that a patient died directly because of the strike.
Several workers have been intimidated during the strike, with two nurses injured in attacks by suspected union officials in just the past week. One was beaten around the head with bricks, the other stabbed and another kidnapped for defying the stoppage.
The strikers are now split about what to do next. Many nurses and teachers from the biggest health and teachers’ unions still say they will reject the deal now being offered. “Sadtu won’t sign,” said Charles Masilela, an English teacher and union leader in Mpumalanga Province, who was protesting outside the news conference. “That’s the mandate members have given to leaders,” he told The New York Times newspaper.
But Chris Clopper, who leads a smaller teachers union, said that the strike had effectively ended. The strike “lost its impetus” since the government improved its offer to workers a week ago, he said. And teachers had already started trickling back to work. The cost in lost wages, he said, just was not worth the small gains in salary they might yet win by carrying on the strike. “Once I showed my guys these figures, they said, ‘Let’s call it a day,’” he said.