Striking South African Unions Vote on Pay Increase Offer

08/31/2010 04:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The government in South Africa has increased its pay increase offer to 1.3 million striking public workers. Union members began voting on it Tuesday.

The government raised its offer from 7.0 percent to 7.5 percent. Unions have demanded 8.6 percent.

Union leaders said that pending the outcome of the vote they have put on hold a plan to call on private workers to join the strike on Thursday.

The union representing police said they were unable to convince a Labor Court judge to withdraw an order barring them from striking so they would stay on the job. The military earlier also said it would not violate an order against striking. Both the police and military have said they support the strikers.

President Jacob Zuma, in his first address on the strike since returning from a tip to China, said the government supported the right of workers to strike but they should observe basic decency.

"The abandonment of patients, including babies in incubators, as well as schoolchildren, is difficult to comprehend and accept, no matter how sympathetic one is to the needs of workers," Zuma said. He also vowed an agreement would be reached soon that would end the strike.

The South African Medical Association blamed the government for deaths that had occurred during the strike. There was been no nationwide count but some seriously ill patients are known to have died.

Health Minister Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi replied by doing an all-night shift at the Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital. Although he hadn't worked as a physician for 16 years he stitched up a dozen stab wounds.

"I don't want people to die, so that's why I am going to work," Motsoaledi said. "I can still perform a Caesarian section if it comes to the push." Thousands of volunteers were doing the dirty work of keeping hospitals clean. The military said it had sent medical teams to 57 hospitals.

The mining industry hadn't been hit by strikers, but last Friday union members working for Richards Bay Minerals walked off the job. The National Union of Mine Workers earlier had said it was considering some kind of action next week.

Some teachers have returned to work saying the rights of their students are more important than getting a pay raise, but most schools remained closed. Many courts also are closed.

Who could have imagined when the apartheid government allowed black miners to unionize in the early 1980s, under pressure from the mining industry, that it would spread into so many areas? The New York Times called it a "breathtaking development." The companies said that it was too inefficient to have hundreds of thousands of workers coming and going.

Now the trade union movement was threatening to withdraw from its alliance with the ruling African National Congress and determine which candidates to support in the next elections on an individual basis. The party was facing internal dissent from its radical youth wing.

A radical ANC youth league leader's was again making comments that were likely to inflame the situation. Julius Malema said if white landowners refused to cooperate with a plan to sell their property to blacks it would be seized. South African media, recently under the threat of new legislation to block their coverage, reported the ruling party had spied on former President Nelson Mandela during a leadership squabble.

The rate of white flight from South Africa is already high with an estimated 20 percent having left since apartheid ended. Violence has been the main cause but threats of the expropriation of land and nationalization of mines are likely to increase it.

The country, the most successful on the continent, appears to be in the worst shape it has been since successfully switching from white-minority rule following elections in 1994.

One reason the transition was so successful was the African National Congress has held back pressure to raise incomes of the black majority. This has helped the country remain attractive to investors.

Rising violence had created concerns among much of the population before the World Cup. The games appeared to have unified the country.

But in recent weeks workers in schools, hospitals, public works, immigration, waste collection, transport, and roads, as well as police and members of the military, have demanded significant wage increases.

The wage demands cross racial lines now.

Volunteers are risking assault by helping wherever they can.

Babies are being born on streets, and corpses are rotting because mortuaries are closed. AIDs victims and others with serious medical problems are unable to get their medications in many cases.