South African President Jacob Zuma on Saturday accused striking state workers of abandoning the sick at hospitals and said he expected a deal to be reached soon to end the labour action by about 1.3 million.
The strike by state workers seeking pay rises more than double the inflation rate started last week and has led to school closures, prevented medical treatment and caused bodies to pile up at state-run morgues.
“The abandonment of patients, including babies in incubators, as well as school children, is difficult to comprehend and accept, no matter how sympathetic one is to the needs of workers,” Zuma said at the eulogy for Joe Matthews, a prominent figure in the struggle to end apartheid.
“We are confident that negotiators on both sides will find a solution soon, and help the country to get out of this unpleasant situation as quickly as possible,” Zuma said.
The strike is expected to intensify next week after the Congress of South African Trade Unions threatened to join the action and grind key industries to a temporary halt in Africa’s largest economy, including mining.
An expanded strike would add to worries about prospects for growth after the economy slowed more than expected in the second quarter of 2010 as mining contracted and manufacturing expanded at a slower pace.
Zuma, who spent most of the week on a state visit to major trade and investment partner China, has not made many comments about the strike that has posed one of the most serious domestic problems he has faced since taking office about a year ago.
The government has said it cannot afford the state workers’ demand of an 8,6% wage rise, more than double the inflation rate, and R1 000 a month as a housing allowance. It has offered 7% and R700.
Any agreement to end the dispute is likely to swell state spending by about 1 to 2%, forcing the government to find new funds just as it tries to bring down a deficit totalling 6,7% of gross domestic product.
The African National Congress is under pressure to reach a deal to appease its governing partner and long-time ally in organised labour, which last week threatened to break up the partnership that has delivered large blocks of votes to the ANC.
Zuma also does not want to have the dispute hanging over him heading into an ANC policy-setting meeting in late September.
There have been no new wage talks between public-service unions and the government, Cosatu said on Friday.
“We have not had a meeting,” said spokesperson Mugwena Maluleke, responding to reports of secret talks on Thursday night between unions and Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi.
Maluleke said he was trying to trace the source of the rumours.
“I can speak on behalf of Cosatu that there was no meeting,” Maluleke said.
Asked if any meetings had been arranged, he replied: “We are hoping to hear from the government. Our memoranda that we presented at marches yesterday [Thursday] gave the government 24-hours to respond. We are ready to talk.”
Government spokesperson Themba Maseko said he could not give out any new information. “There is no news yet,” he said at noon on Friday. – Reuters, Sapa