Police fire rubber bullets at South African civil workers

Pressure mounts to reach a deal as troops and army medics are deployed to hospitals but finance miniter expects no major economic hit.

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JOHANNESBURG // South African police fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds blocking roads and healthcare workers prevented patients from entering hospitals as a strike by more than 1 million civil servants grew on Thursday. The walkout in pursuit of higher wages that started a day earlier has slowed the treatment of the sick and shut schools across Africa's largest economy, worrying investors and adding pressure on the government to reach a deal. The finance minister said he did not expect a protracted strike to have a major economic impact. But analysts have said the labour action, which includes customs workers, police and clerks, could slow commerce and trade. Crowds in Soweto blocked a main road near a hospital running through the densely populated area, bringing traffic to a halt and preventing patients from entering. "When they refused to move, minimum force had to be used. So rubber bullets were fired," police spokeswoman Captain Nondumiso Mpantsha said. Water cannon were also deployed and there were no major injuries, she said.

Six people, including two infants, died in a Johannesburg hospital and officials attributed the deaths to the walkout of medical personnel. "We have been down this road before. Every time there is a strike, people die," a hospital official said on local radio. Troops and army medical personnel have been deployed to hospitals across South Africa. The unions staged a one-day warning strike last week and said the action that began on Wednesday kicked off an indefinite walkout aimed at slowing the government to a halt. Analysts expect a deal to be reached in the next few days at the earliest or by the start of September at the latest. Any pact is sure to swell state spending as the government tries to cut its deficit down from 6.7 percent of gross domestic product. "We're not seeing the impact in day-to-day figures, but certainly it would have an effect on sentiment," said Nema Ramkhelawan, a currency analyst at Rand Merchant Bank.

Unions, which are set for a fresh round of negotiations on Friday with the government, are demanding an 8.6 percent pay rise, more than double the inflation rate, and 1,000 rand (Dh500) a month for housing. Last week the government raised the housing allowance to 700 rand from a previous offer of 630 rand, but refused to increase its wage rise offer of 7 per cent. The housing allowance alone would be equal to about 1 percent of all budget spending and the government has said it does not have the money to pay more. "We had to make a choice between increasing the salary bill to unaffordable levels by meeting the union demands and cutting other urgently needed services," the cabinet said in a statement. Adding to the mix was a threat to expand in the coming days a strike of auto factory workers, who are seeking a 15 percent wage hike, to the car components sector. The autoworkers' strike that began last week has slowed production in one of the country's most important industries. * Reuters