Are the strikes in South Africa about politics or money?

By Jade Lamb, staff editor Cosatu, the trade union in question, will tell you it’s about money. They’re asking for an 8.6% raise and an R1000/month increase in housing allowance. After rejecting an offer of a 7.5% raise and R800/month housing allowance increase, Cosatu, which represents teachers, nurses, and a number of other civil servants, agreed to resume delivery of essential services for three weeks while continuing negotiations. After three weeks, though, school will be out and patients uncared for again.

Strikes in South Africa are de rigueur; about this time last year, postal workers went on strike for over a month, freezing mail delivery. Local taxi strikes, which basically halt local travel and are often violent, are too common to enumerate or gather news attention. Now Pick ‘n’ Pay employees, a large grocery chain, are going on strike too, and the mine strikes show no sign of ending. South Africa’s economy will not be taken seriously internationally as long as these continue; it’s up to workers, government, and businesses to start working together to find middle ground if they’re serious about economic stability and development.

The Cosatu strike, though, is too important to wait. The strike has halted essential social services, including schooling—which comes on top of a longer than usual winter break to accommodate the World Cup—and health services, resulting in many being turned away from clinics, AIDS patients going off their medicine, and long-term TB patients no longer receiving care. Nurses and teachers are better paid than many South Africans, where un- and underemployment are rife, and much existing employment is in the informal economy or unskilled work. Then again, they also are often earning money to support an extended family and though standards of living are lower than in the West, employment in a skilled profession usually brings economic stability rather than wealth. One wonders, though, if other perks—like better facilities and more equipment that will directly benefit students and patients—ought to have been part of the demanded package.

The strike has political implications for the relationship between the unions and the ANC. Unions thought that President Zuma’s inauguration last year would bring them a renewed power in government negotiations, and found instead that little changed. Rumblings of a strike have been going on since June. Striking has left the government hamstrung and certainly made apparent how important the striking workers are to the operation of the country, though in a nation so used to gaps in service delivery (see the 2008 power shortages), the pressure is somewhat stifled. The rejection of the government’s offer indicates that the unions are not interested in compromise, which will probably result in the government either meeting demands or making some other kinds of concessions. As a power play, striking may be pretty effective in demonstrating strength in the short-term, though as a tactic for improving education and healthcare in South Africa, it leaves a lot to be desired.

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