South Africa rail workers on strike, commuters stranded

By Lucia Mutikani

JOHANNESBURG – Thousands of workers at South African rail and logistics group Transnet began a one-day nationwide strike on Monday, disrupting train services and leaving commuters stranded, a union official said.

“The strike has starte

d on a highly successful note,” said Randall Howard, general secretary of trade union Satawu. “From the response we have received from all the metropolitan areas, it is clear that train services have been severely affected.”

Four unions, representing 50,000 of state-owned Transnet’s 85,000-strong workforce, are protesting against the group’s restructuring programme, which could see the sale of non-core assets worth about 7.7 billion rand (US$1.23 billion).

They say the process could cost 30,000 jobs. Local media reported that only 30 percent of the country’s trains were operating. Trains are the main mode of transport for millions of South Africa’s poor workers.

The four unions held staggered work stoppages across the country last month that analysts estimated cost the country 100 million rand a day.

Although there were no early reports on the impact on port operations, Howard said disruptions were expected, particularly at the Durban container terminal — Africa’s busiest harbour.

“We don’t have any reports from the ports yet, but we are confident that our members have not turned up for duty. There will definitely be an impact,” said Howard.

Severe disruptions to the ports could hit the export sector, which accounts for about a third of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The Business Day newspaper quoted economists as saying that growth in the first quarter could slow to below 3 percent because of the strikes and power cuts. The economy grew by 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2005.

The government, seeking to raise economic growth to 6 percent by 2010 from about 4.9 percent now, to halve unemployment and poverty, has identified Transnet as one of the vehicles to achieve this goal.

Transnet is to spend about 40 billion rand over five years on infrastructure, and will sell non-core assets to enable it to become a focused freight transport company.

Howard said the unions had no intention of resuming negotiations with Transnet.

“We are not going to return to the table until they change their attitude. This is a one day national strike, we will assess the situation and decide the way forward,” said Howard.