Hundreds of South African doctors took to the streets on Friday to demand a 50 percent wage hike and government action to avert a crisis in understocked state hospitals.
The march follows weeks of angry picketing and an illegal strike last month over charges of gross underpay, drug and equipment shortages, and heavy workloads with shifts lasting up to 36 hours.
"We have been sitting on time bomb for a very long time. For many years we knew that doctors were awfully paid and worked under awful conditions," Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of the powerful COSATU labour federation told marchers in Pretoria.
"There is crisis looming at all public hospitals. Please address the problem before it explodes. Doctors pay must rise," he said.
Some 500 doctors from government and private hospitals marched in Pretoria over wage adjustments that the state has failed to introduce since July last year.
More than 1,000 others marched in the coastal city Durban, the SAPA news agency reported.
The South African Medical Association (SAMA), a 17,000-strong body which organised the march, said an independent study had shown that state doctors were underpaid by between 50 and 75 percent.
South Africa has more than 14,000 state doctors who serve 80 percent of the 48 million population who cannot afford private health care. Some 43 percent of South Africans live on less than two dollars a day.
"We clearly, on our basic salary, are demanding a 50 percent hike up to bring us to parity with other professionals," SAMA chairwoman Denise White said.
"During the initial negotiations, the employer tabled a ridiculously pathetic offer which did not exceed five percent. That just angered doctors even further."
Interns take home less than 1,000 dollars (717 euros) after deductions and specialists roughly double that, according to Mpho Mohlala, deputy chairwoman of the United Doctors Forum.
Last month nearly 400 striking doctors were issued with dismissal letters which the health department replaced with final warnings after the boycott was called off, she said.
"We are not giving proper basic care to the patients. You are not doing justice to the patients. Do you think operating (on) a patient without having sleep for 36 hours, you are functioning? You are non-functional," said Mohlala.
"We've got an exodus of doctors leaving the country, going to work somewhere overseas, and we've got lots and lots of doctors moving out of the public sector to the private sector," she told AFP.
After accepting the doctors' memorandum, new health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the dispute was being resolved at the highest level of government.
"I apologise profusely for the mistake that happened between July 1 and now. I agree that some people here are really suffering" he said.
"From ourside we won't sleep until this issue is resolved, because it has been long overdue."
Health sector strikes are outlawed in South Africa where doctors are considered an essential service alongside the police, army, and nurses.
The health department on Thursday said that it viewed the protest as illegal, but SAMA said the march is lawful and in line with regulations for public gatherings.
The latest protest comes as South Africa entered its first post-apartheid recession this week amid escalating pressures from COSATU for new President Jacob Zuma's government to deliver better wages.