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Comment: Strike is devastating own goal for South Africa

By CNN's Robyn Curnow and Peter Wilkinson
  • Striking public sector workers are shutting down services across South Africa
  • Country often experiences strikes, but never this level of violence and intimidation
  • Many people support the strikers' right to take action, but not their methods
  • Hospitals and schools closed as media reports that many patients are suffering

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- Six weeks ago South Africa was basking in the afterglow of hosting a successful soccer World Cup that lawmakers boasted would add millions of dollars to the national economy.

Now that good will is evaporating as striking public sector workers shut down services across the country, premature babies die in empty neonatal wards and nurses even attack patients on picket lines.

Add to this schools being closed at the most crucial time of the academic year, as students prepare to take their most important examinations, and it is clear the country is facing a major crisis.

And neither side shows any sign of backing down. The government says it cannot afford to meet workers' demands for an 8-plus percent pay rise, and has ordered military doctors and nurses into dozens of hospitals to protect vulnerable members of society. At the same time the trades unions' umbrella group Cosatu urged workers to intensify the strike, saying "we need a total shutdown of the public sector until the government comes to its senses."

Video: Pregnant woman turned away
Video: Strikes cripple hospitals

South Africa is no stranger to disputes of course. Workers have a constitutional right to strike, and this time of year is "strikes season" when public sector unions normally negotiate with the government over pay and conditions. But what distinguishes this strike from previous ones is the levels of violence and intimidation shown by strikers.

Nurses and hospital workers are threatening and, in some cases, beating non-striking colleagues and even patients who dare to cross the picket lines. CNN has even seen some strikers outside hospitals carrying large sticks known in South Africa as the "knobkerrie."

Also unusual is the widespread desertion by nurses of their posts: in many cases babies born premature have been left in neonatal wards, and there have been media reports of babies dying as a result. Women in labor have been turned away from hospital.

Most hospitals are pretty empty as a result. Unless you're on your death bed, most patients are being discharged. The strikers are also preventing people from going into hospitals. In one hospital in KwaZulu-Natal province, health authorities said hospital workers have locked the doors.

Many South Africans are naturally appalled by the violence and consequences of the strike, but still much of the media supports workers' right to strike, if not their methods. Workers see corruption at the highest levels of government and Cosatu's general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has criticized the "caviar lifestyle" of government ministers.

So why is this strike so bitter? For an insight, one need look no further than the forces that propelled South African President Jacob Zuma to power. With the support of left-wing unions Zuma forced out former president Thabo Mbeki to secure the leadership of the ruling party, the African National Congress in 2007, and the presidency of the country two years later.

The problem for Zuma is that his government, which comprises an antagonistic alliance of the ANC, the unions, and the Communist Party, are now demanding payback. Ministers are struggling to balance the country's finances, but at the same Zuma is politically dependent on the unions, the power of which has grown greatly during his presidency.

The unions and the Communists now want more worker-friendly policies, and rather less of the free market economy that requires investors from overseas. It's too early to tell yet what the implications of this crisis are for South Africa and the region: the real outcome will probably not be known for years to come. This is a politically uncertain time for Zuma and it remains to be seen whether workers will win their demands.

One thing is certain though, and that is the confident, vibrant image projected by South Africa during the World Cup is being squandered. Unions are threatening "total anarchy" and to "bring the country to its knees" and these are not words that foreign investors want to hear. And the longer this strike continues the greater is the devastation it causes to the country's reputation as a place to do business.