TENS of thousands of people from several industries on Wednesday joined a national strike organised by the Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) in protest mainly against labour brokers, the e-tolling system in Gauteng.

Workers in the retail, mining, manufacturing, services and other sectors took part in mass marches in cities around the country.

Shops were closed in Johannesburg, where the main event was taking place. A crowd of thousands of protesters stretching six blocks started marching from Beyers Naude Square at 10am.

In Polokwane in Limpopo, a downpour resulted in some protesters seeking shelter under shop awnings. Others were not deterred by the chill and drizzle and continued chanting and blowing their vuvuzelas.

In Cape Town, the march got under way at 11am with protesters braving the blistering heat. Some people took shelter under trees while others sang and danced in the street.

In Durban, the strike also started an hour after the scheduled time. Numerous police officers along Dr Pixley Kaseme Street - formerly West Street - monitored the crowd attired in red T-shirts and blowing vuvuzelas.

Cosatu also reported protests involving between 4000 and 12000 people in Mafikeng in the North West, Newcastle and Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal, East London in the Eastern Cape, Thohoyandou in Limpopo and Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

Some companies were reduced to skeleton staff or had to shut down for the day. Gold Fields, the gold miner, said 85% of its workers were absent. Harmony Gold, another major gold producer, said all of its staff affiliated to the National Union of Mineworkers, South Africa's largest union, had stayed away.

Essential services were affected but not crippled as workers respected minimum service-level agreements. Lungi Mvumvu, public relations officer at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, said all of the hospital's 5000-plus staff had reported for work. However, Business Day was not granted access to the hospital, where a specialist said some clerks were absent from their jobs.

The Airports Company South Africa asked travellers to arrive early as flights out of Durban had been affected by the strike. "The company that supplies the fuel, Sky Tanking, has advised that its employees did not report for work on time (as a result of the strike)," it said.

Metrorail said its services were slightly reduced in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, with "worrying" reports of protesters assaulting and intimidating commuters. "Incidents were reported at Elandsfontein, Kempton Park, Leralla and Kaalfontein," the rail operator said of its Gauteng service.

In central Johannesburg, embattled African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema told protesters the ANC had to listen to the masses.

"The march is not (for the) ANC. It is to ask that promises are kept," he told a cheering crowd. "Cosatu is the one leading the march. The ANC must listen to the masses."

Mr Malema said "Mickey Mouse newspapers" would say only 30000 people had turned out for the event, "but I see 150000".

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of Cosatu, said some government leaders had forgotten their roots.

"Today we are here to remind some fellows where they are coming from. They don't know any more the power of the working class," Mr Vavi said. "This is not a march. This is an occupation of the City of Johannesburg by the workers."

MEMORANDUM OF GRIEVANCES

In a memorandum prepared for delivery to government representatives in every province during Wednesday's protests, Cosatu said the private operator of Gauteng's controversial freeway tolls would "milk" the public.

"All the evidence indicates that the revenues from the tolls are going to be enormous, and that the loans will be paid off quickly, leaving the private operator to milk the public," it said.

Demanding the dismantling of the 42 toll gantries already straddling the N1, N3, N12, and R21 freeways, Cosatu said if more money was spent on stopping fraud and corruption, the government would easily have enough to fund road construction and maintenance.

According to the memorandum, Cosatu opposes the e-tolls as they will make it more expensive for the poor to travel by road and increase food inflation by adding to the cost of transporting goods. Also, public transport is still "woefully inadequate", according to the trade-union federation, with a third of workers using their own cars to get to work.

"This is not a free choice. It is because our public transport system is expensive, unsafe and unreliable," the memorandum said.

Besides the Bus Rapid Transit System put in place in Johannesburg and Cape Town, there had not been any new subsidised bus routes in more than 10 years, Cosatu said.

Cosatu believes that having the private sector operate the toll roads amounts to as privatisation, which it opposes.

"We pay taxes so that government can build and maintain roads, hospitals, schools etc. For all of the above reasons, we demand the dismantling of the Gauteng motorway gantries, and the immediate halting, for good, of the Gauteng open tolls," it said.

Sasha Naryshkine, analyst at Vestact Asset Management, said the strike would have no lasting effect on the economy, but added that investors might question the public opposition to e-tolling, considering that it was a per-use tax for roads that needed development and maintenance.

"If you ask someone who is against the tolls how the roads can be paid for, they'll say the government must pay, using tax money," he said. "People are missing the point that e-tolls are a per-use tax."

Neren Rau, CEO of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the strike would add to South Africa's image as a country that was disrupted by too many strikes, which would detract investors. He said better communication between the parties involved could have helped avoid the strike.

"Investors have many countries to choose from. Strikes do not help anyone," Mr Rau said.

With SAPA and REUTERS