"This is a new South African labour movement in the making,'' said Zwelizima Vavi, secretary-general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), as up to 35,000 protesters gathered outside Union Buildings, the government offices in the capital, Pretoria.
Around the country, hundreds of thousands of public employees left their workplaces to march for a minimum 7.3 per cent pay rise. In most townships, schools were closed. Less visibly, the day of action by 12 unions representing some 800,000 workers, laid bare deepening tensions within the decades-old alliance between the African National Congress (ANC), Cosatu and the South African Communist Party.
Together, they fought and vanquished white rule. But since the first all-race elections in 1994, the governing ANC has increasingly embraced free-market policies which are anathema to Cosatu and the SACP. Last month, the government unilaterally declared and implemented a pay deal for public servants, ranging from 4.7 to 6.3 per cent.
"Our government is union- bashing,'' said Willie Madisha, president of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union and newly elected president of Cosatu. "We are worried the minister of public service saw fit to declare and implement policy without discussion.'' But Essop Pahad, minister in the office of the president and thus de facto deputy to President Thabo Mbeki, said yesterday that the government was "ready to talk'' about how to allocate the available money.
Mr Pahad added: "There is always an inherent level of tension between unions and government. We have put our cards on the table and said only 6 per cent is available. We are ready to talk about how to allocate it.''
As black protesters danced and chanted, a timid-looking white office clerk with the Public Servants' Association, said: "This type of thing is not really for me, but if you cannot beat them, join them.''