|South African military health services are filling the void created by striking nurses [AFP]
The two major civil service unions on strike against the South African government have vowed to intensify pressure in coming days, in a struggle pitting a million members of the middle and lower ranks of society against a confident government leadership fresh from hosting the World Cup.
Teachers from the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and nurses from the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) have continued picketing at schools, clinics and hospitals, leading to widespread shutdowns since August 18.
Skeleton teams of doctors and military personnel have been compelled to send non-emergency cases home.
In several confrontations with police on Wednesday and Thursday, striking workers were shot with rubber bullets and water cannons.
Notwithstanding reasonably high popularity enjoyed by Jacob Zuma, the affable president, recent reports about vast profits in 'Black Economic Empowerment' deals for his son, nephew and inner-circle allies are raising anger.
A press statement from Nehawu lambasted Pretoria's hedonistic state-managerial class: "We read on a daily basis government's wasteful expenditure on World Cup tickets, cars, hotels, parties and advertising."
Indeed, Pretoria subsidised the World Cup to the tune of $5bn, by most estimates, including more than $3bn on stadiums that are now widely recognised as 'white elephants'.
Many are unable to fill the stands and too expensive for the weakly-supported local football teams. (Even the cricket and rugby teams which attract more fans are hesitant to move from their current world-class venues).
Corporations sponsoring the soccer tournament took home more than $4bn in profits, tax free without exchange controls.
Opulence and inequality
During June to July, South Africa displayed to foreign visitors and television audiences an opulence that belied its increasingly stressed economy and extreme inequality.
|A settlement favourable to labour is expected within coming days [AFP]
The recovery from a two per cent GDP decline in 2009 is faltering, with three per cent announced growth this year widely derided, as the first half of 2010 witnessed continuing job losses.
More than one million of the 13 million workers in South Africa's formal economy have lost their jobs since 2008.
In spite of the pressure, workers have become surprisingly militant, winning above-inflation wage settlements from the transport and electricity parastatals in recent weeks, assisted by pressure they wielded before and during the World Cup.
With inflation at 4.5 per cent, the government's latest offer of a seven per cent annual increase plus a $25 rise in the monthly housing allowance (to $90) would ordinarily be a strong settlement.
However, union demands are much higher, including an 11 per cent wage increase (backdated three months) and a $130 increase for the housing allowance, as well equality in the state medical aid subsidy.
In addition to higher taxes on business and the rich (they had fallen markedly from 1994 levels), unions point out other places that state waste and corporate subsidies could be cut.
Vast spending on infrastructure has come under strong criticism, especially given that the four major components – two new coal-fired power plants ($35bn), financed partly by the World Bank, a ($3bn) fast-train from the Johannesburg airport to the main financial district, a ($1bn) airport in Durban, and new (multi-billion dollar) dams for big mining and agricultural interests – mainly benefit elites and come at the cost of infrastructure for poor people.
But while the case for a redirection of state funds is strong, the question arises as to whether a potential 'labour aristocracy' will enjoy affluence at a time of ongoing job cuts and misery for the unskilled, unemployed masses.
The union reply is typically that each worker in turn supports large extended families, insofar as apartheid-era migrancy relations still tie South Africans to kinship networks stretching hundreds of kilometres.
Union leaders point out that no other social force in South Africa campaigns so actively for broader socio-economic rights that benefit the unemployed, such as a proposed National Health Insurance and Basic Income Grant ($15/person/month) that would reach the most marginalised communities.
But the unions are mainly losing these social-wage battles.
The unions' greatest disappointments with Zuma's government are its amplification of neo-liberal economic policies such as exchange control liberalisation and monetarism (high interest rates), and its failure to ban labour brokers which supply hundreds of thousands of cheap, casualised 'outsourced' workers at far lower wages.
Also reflecting the widening social divides are the several thousand protests that police record each year.
Many have flared up spontaneously as localised 'service delivery' riots, with results that include vandalism of municipal offices and even xenophobic outbreaks.
Unfortunately, no major urban social movement has emerged to capture and channel the frustrations into a sustained, democratic force.
While a settlement favourable to labour is expected within coming days, given how tough the unions are fighting, the pressures on the economy and society will keep growing.
Patrick Bond (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban: http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.