Massive strikes bring South Africa to a halt

South African workers have blocked roads and disrupted mining activities to protest rising food, fuel and electricity costs during a one-day strike. The move comes in the wake of power cuts and electricity rationing by the state power company.


South African workers blocked roads and disrupted gold mining and other major industries on Wednesday in a nationwide strike over sharp price rises rattling the continent's economic powerhouse.

Public transport shut down countrywide, trade unions said, while there were reports of roads barricaded by burning tyres in the south and low worker turnout for the key mining industry.

"There is no public transport. The mining industry is closing down," said Patrick Craven, spokesman for trade union federation COSATU, a junior partner in President Thabo Mbeki's governing coalition.

Gold Fields, South Africa's largest gold producer, said worker turnout ranged from between seven and 40 percent.

"We have a limited attendance at our four mines in South Africa," spokesman Daniel Thole said.

Volkswagen closed its plant in the southeastern city of Port Elizabeth, said spokesman Bill Stevens.

Long lines of people waited for buses and taxis in the economic capital of Johannesburg, some who had been there since 4:00 am (0200 GMT).

"We've been waiting here for about three hours," said Tebogo Molokwane, 21, who had tried to attend her computer class but the school was closed.

"I do support the message, not the strike. They shouldn't have stopped the transport."

Nearly two million members of 21 trade unions in the private and public sectors had been mobilised to march in major cities countrywide, according to COSATU.

The strike follows smaller regional protests in the weeks leading up to Wednesday's action after a recent move by energy giant Eskom to raise electricity prices for the second time since December, amounting to an average hike of 27.5 percent.

It also comes as prices have risen sharply for many basic goods, mirroring trends that have occurred both regionally and across the world.

Food prices in South Africa increased by nearly 17.0 percent, interest rates by 20 percent and fuel prices by more than 35 percent from May 2007 to May 2008, according to the Bureau of Market Research at the University of South Africa.

During the same period, earnings per capita had risen by only 12 percent, according to the data.

The country's growth in the first quarter measured 2.1 percent on a 12-month basis, down sharply from 5.3 percent in the last quarter of 2007, government statistics show. Inflation was 12.2 percent in June.

An electricity crisis earlier this year brought the mining industry to a halt, with shortages leading to severe blackouts.

The National Union of Mineworkers, the largest of COSATU's affiliates with 320,000 members, expected the mining industry to come to a standstill on Wednesday.

Economists, while acknowledging the country's worsening economic situation, cast doubt on what effect the strike could have.

"These strikes will probably do more damage than good because all we do is send a message that we're a strike-prone country and it's not good for the image of South Africa," said Dawie Roodt of the Efficient Group financial services firm.

Professor Carel van Aardt of the Bureau of Market Research said reasons for the strike were understandable, but mass action was not the best solution.

"I just believe the costs far outweigh the benefits," he said of the strike.

"On the other hand, if we ignore the plight of the poor people we're going to do it at our peril because this is a cry from the working and poor classes to do something dramatic."

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