The South African Public Sector Strike of 2010

I’m back hard at work at site, but with National Science Week just around the corner (start of August!), I don’t have time to write new blog entries about my travels. So enjoy this post I wrote like 6 months ago for an occasion like this…

During our training the first two months we were in South Africa, there was a massive strike. 1.3 million public workers–pretty much the entire public sector of South Africa–went on strike. The strike had such a profound affect on our training, and such a profound affect on how I’ve come to view South Africa, that it feels wrong to not write about it.

We were very much cut off from what was going on during the strike because we were in training. What we knew about the strike was assembled from whatever newspapers we could snag, whatever updates the few connected volunteers could pull off the Internet, the evening news, and the occasional Peace Corps briefing. With all these sources, and the power of the rumor mill, at any given moment we couldn’t be sure what was going on. So there are really two stories that run in parallel here, one of what was actually happening in the strike, and one of what the experience was like during training. But because my experience of the strike was so subjective, I am not qualified to tell the story of what actually happened. But here is my tale of the strike through the eyes of a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer trapped in a training.

The first rumblings of the strike were provided by a volunteer who came to train us. He said that the teachers were going to go on strike in a few weeks. Nobody paid much attention to him, despite murmurings that 2010 was a strike year (the last big one was 2007, and they apparently happen every 3 years) and that we were in the heart of strike season.

A few days later, when we made our first school visits, many teachers were missing. They were at union meetings discussing the strike. Then some school visits were disrupted because of one day strikes. After a few one day strikes, an open-ended strike was declared. Peace Corps took all of us out of our village training locations (schools) and kept us all in a compound during the day. We knew the strike was on because we heard it–chanting, vuvuzelas, etc. That’s when things started to get a bit scary.

We were instructed not to teach, and to stay far away from schools. We were supposed to be delicate when discussing the strike. Rumors came in from one of the villages that a group of learners was going to liberate a school from teachers that had occupied it after parents tried to teach classes. The kids were making paraffin bombs. Strikers were blocking highways. The police were going on strike. People were dying because strikers were blocking hospitals. It was very surreal, because we saw none of this. Our lives in the compound continued, albeit with very frustrating changes to the training schedule because we could no longer do school visits.

For us, the worst part about the strike is that it made training, already a claustrophobic time, even more intense. Our visits to the places we would eventually serve at were canceled. Then Peace Corps said we’d have to remain at training (even if training itself had ended) until the strike was over, since they couldn’t send us out during the strike.

Thankfully the strike ended. We made it to our sites basically on time, and the strike became something completely strange to look back on.

For me, the moment of the strike that had the most impact on me was a discussion with my language teacher. We were discussing how the majority of South Africans supported the strike. The perception among many citizens and public workers is that government ministers are exceptionally greedy, living a posh life off the backs of the workers (some particularly filthy stories of high-priced government junkets during the World Cup no doubt helped reinforce this viewpoint). Thus, the only choice ordinary public workers have to get their piece is to strike. It also helps that South Africa has a huge public sector, and many South Africans are related to at least one civil servant.

I explained to my language teacher how Americans would probably view the strike. In South Africa, public workers mostly make more than the average income, they were asking for a raise double the inflation rate, and they were blocking roads and hospitals. Americans would be outraged. We would view the strikers as trying to take away money from better uses–roads, new schools, social programs, etc.

As a Peace Corps South Africa Volunteer, I have no viewpoint. The strike was.

My language teacher had never thought about it that way–and she is a very smart woman. And I had never really realized the South African perspective. Cultural exchange!