South Africa's schools and hospitals were transformed into battlegrounds yesterday as a nationwide strike escalated into a sometimes violent test of strength between the government and unions.
Police fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds blocking roads in one area while healthcare workers picketed hospitals, preventing patients from seeking help.
Public-sector unions have launched an indefinite strike demanding an 8.6 per cent pay rise, which the government has insisted the debt-stricken country cannot afford. The struggle could be critical to the future of President Jacob Zuma as well as damaging for sub-Saharan Africa's largest economy.
"This is more than an industrial dispute," said Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, an expert on organised labour at the University of Johannesburg. "It is a political testing of strength in which Zuma can't be seen to be weak."
Crowds who blocked a main road near a hospital in Soweto, holding up traffic and blocking entrance to patients, were broken up by police firing rubber bullets and water cannons. Elsewhere in Johannesburg striking teachers threw bricks and stones at police, while nurses tore down a gate at one hospital as pickets struggled to block colleagues who wanted to go to work as normal.
A worker from one hospital in the commercial capital said strikers were throwing out doctors and nurses who were trying to treat patients as normal. Exam papers were torn up and teachers driven out of schools by flying pickets in other areas.
"This will continue until we get the response from government that we need," said the teachers' union leader Nomusa Cembi.
Unions are demanding an across-the-board wage hike at nearly double the rate of inflation plus an £88 monthly housing allowance for all civil servants. The government has offered 7 per cent and £62 towards housing. With South Africa running a large budget deficit – equivalent to 6.7 per cent of GDP – the housing allowance alone would add another percentage point to the state budget.
"The days of spending money as though it is unlimited are essentially over," said the government spokesman Themba Maseko.
South Africa was hit hard last year by the global downturn, losing close to a million jobs in a country where a quarter of the workforce are already jobless. There are fears that a prolonged strike could reverse the already anaemic recovery and threaten projected growth rates of 5 per cent next year.
"The 8.6 per cent demand is simply not affordable as every additional cent spent on salaries means less money for other essential services," said the spokesman. "It also means we cannot employ more teachers and nurses."
However, any hopes that the government had of a swift victory over South Africa's trades union congress, Cosatu, disappeared as other smaller unions joined the walkouts. The country's influential auto workers' union is also threatening to expand a strike they began last week, demanding a 15 per cent increase in wages.
The stand-off between the public sector and the government comes with frustration against the leadership of the ruling ANC running high. The unions now on strike were among Mr Zuma's most influential backers during his bid for the ANC presidency, and analysts are seeing the dispute as a test of his ability to balance the competing forces within the ruling coalition.
This week the Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi took a personal potshot at Mr Zuma and how much he is earning as a state employee. "If my memory serves me right he is earning more than R2.2m [£195,000]," he told protesters outside parliament on Tuesday. "He has blood like we have blood. He has a big family like we do... Our needs are the same. We want geld [money]."
Some union officials were threatening to carry the pickets over to private schools and hospitals where the political elite educate their children and send their relatives.
However, the unions themselves risk losing public support if the strike continues to block access to the basic services on which the majority of poorer South Africans depend.