The biggest strike wave since the end of apartheid is causing a crisis in South African politics – and shaking a government that refuses to increase pay for millions of public sector workers.
The usually traffic jammed streets of Johannesburg were empty of cars on Friday last week, but were instead filled with the sounds of marchers singing liberation songs.
After years of toeing the line, unions have been clashing with their “partners” in government and opening the lid to the discontent.
Across the country around one million people are on indefinite strike for a 12 percent rise. The mood of defiance and determination can be seen in Cape Town, where nurses faced down police firing rubber bullets.
A nurse on a march in Pretoria expressed the new feelings of militancy among workers: “How does it feel to be here? I can’t explain it.
“It’s not nice to have to strike, but on the other hand it’s nice to support others and to fight for what you want – to be strong, not a coward.”
Hundreds of homemade placards denounced the government’s below inflation offer, with messages such as “6 percent is an insult”, and one which read, “The lord looked at my work and was pleased, then he looked at my salary and cried.”
In addition to poverty pay, workers are angry at taking the strain of some 42,000 unfilled vacancies in the public sector.
Last weekend government negotiators ignored the placards and increased their offer by just 0.5 percent.
A young woman worker who joined the strike in Johannesburg had one word to describe Fraser Moleketi, the minister in charge of negotiations – “disrespectful”.
The battle for a decent pay rise is also a fight for democracy. “We want the government that we voted for to respect the mandate we have given them,” said Malatsi, a hospital worker on the Pretoria march.
“I been struggling for better services since 1959, and you can see the effect it has had on my hair,” he said, whipping off his hat to the cheers of his comrades and revealing his white locks.
“We thought the government would feel for us workers because we put them into power, but it’s like they have forgotten about us.”
A government negotiator said during a televised debate last weekend that public workers should accept wage restraint in order to “make an attractive environment for business”.
But as workers feel the pain, business executives are giving themselves pay increases of up to 68 percent.
A new chant on the demonstrations addresses the government’s hypocrisy. It translates as, “What’s this? We brought you from where you were and now you’re on the gravy train.”
Now there is growing sense among workers that they have the power to force that gravy train off the rails.
Claire Ceruti is a member of the South African organisation » Keep Left