More than one million South African state workers have gone on strike to press for an increase in pay, a move that threatens to paralyse Africa's biggest economy. Schools were closed early on Wednesday as teachers left for meetings to discuss the walkout, while workers dressed in red T-shirts gathered outside hospitals and government offices.
"The strike is indefinite. It will go on until there has been an improvement, until the government delivers on our demands," Fikile Majola, the general secretary of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, said
"The response has been very good especially in the schools."
Those on strike included police, healthcare workers, teachers and customs officials. Essential services are expected to be maintained through skeleton staffing.
"We have nothing to lose but the chains that bind us," Norman Mampane, the national spokesman for the Popcru police and prison guards' union, one of the groups in the labour coalition representing about 1.3 million state workers, said.
The strike was declared after four days of consultation in which the state's offer was to increase the monthly housing allowance to 700 rand from a previous offer of 630 rand. However, it had refused to increase its wage rise offer of seven per cent.
Dumisani Nkwanba, the spokesman for the ministry of public service and administration, said: "The government has been very sincere … The question here is the issue of affordability on the part of the state.
"The offer the government has put on the table … we feel is a fair and reasonable offer. We cannot move beyond what we have done now."
However, workers do not believe the government when it says that it has no money.
"They say they see politicians living lavish lifestyles, they question why there was money for the football World Cup [staged in South Africa] and say they are tired of corruption allegations in government departments and that they will not put up with it anymore," reporter Hara Mutasa said.
"They are saying that they are not going back to work until their demands are met and that they don't care how long the strike drags on.
"It's going to have a big impact. Schools are shut down … we've heard people have barricaded hospitals. If this strike drags on a lot of people will become the casualties of the strike action."
The last big public sector strike in South Africa took place in 2007 when a four-week strike by 600,000 state workers cost the economy several million lost man-days, discouraged investors and angered the public.