More than 700 000 public service workers were on strike on Thursday, making this the biggest strike in South Africa's history, the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) claimed.

"This includes 320 000 educators," Sadtu's secretariat said in a statement to Sapa.

Around 200 000 of those striking took part in the 24 marches held across the country, Sadtu said.

"Sadtu hails South Africa's public service workers in general - and the educators in particular - who on Thursday in their hundreds of thousands came out on strike to demonstrate to the employer the depth of feeling and their resolve to pursue this just dispute."

Although the teachers' union was committed to negotiations, Sadtu neverthless said the strike would not be a "one-day affair".

But it added "we are committed to finding a settlement to the current dispute.

"We believe that we are so close. We cannot accept a two-year freeze on real wages for 2005 and 2006 - but on the other areas of difference we believe that we can find each other."

Sadtu thanked the public for their support. "As public servants we are very mindful that we serve the public - this is a vocation as well as an obligation," Sadtu said.

"As educators we reiterate our commitment to ensure that time is made up with the learners so that they are prepared for examinations."

Sadtu said it was aware of only one small public service union of 20 000 members which did not support the strike.

One correctional facility in KwaZulu-Natal, the Durban Westville prison, had a very low turn-out of correctional services workers.

National spokesperson for correctional services Bheki Manzini told Sapa security was however not compromised at the prison. "Some members didn't turn up and we had to implement plan B. There is no concern now."

He said there were no problems in the rest of the country's prisons.

Schools appeared to have been the hardest hit by the stayaway.

A Sapa reporter visited 10 schools in Johannesburg and found very few children at school. The exception was Westbury Primary School where 256 children were being looked after by eight teachers who "could not afford to strike". Health services around the country were mostly functioning without disruptions.

Gauteng hospitals were running normally except for some shortages of cleaning staff.

Chief communications director Annette Driessel said: "Everything is running smoothly. The only minor problem in terms of shortages is in the cleaning departments."

The Free State health department did not foresee any major disruption of services at clinics and hospitals.

Spokesperson Elke de Witt said in a statement: "Health service is declared as an essential service and officials who participate in the strike will face disciplinary action."

At Bloemfontein's biggest hospital, Pelenomi, a spokesperson said most of their staff had arrived for the 7am shift.

A Sapa reporter at Johannesburg Hospital said everything seemed to be running as usual.

A doctor in the casualty ward said all the nurses were there, while a doctor in the oncology unit said their nurses were at work, but they had no cleaning staff.

All staff had reported for duty on Thursday at the East London Hospital complex. Head of clinical governance Narad Pandey said: "It's business as usual here. I do not think we can afford the ill to be neglected. Imagine what would happen if we joined the strike?"

Some courts were experiencing delays due to the strike action.

A senior magistrate at the Johannesburg magistrate's court, Mncedisi Mtebele, said: "About 60 percent of the interpreters did not come to work on Thursday."

Court sessions went ahead but only two courts, instead of the normal four, were in operation at a time.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) was unaffected, a SAPS head office spokesperson told Sapa.

Senior Superintendent Mohladi Tlomatsana said: "The police are at their posts. Some of our members are out to monitor the protests, and they have all turned up for duty. Others are also at their posts." - Sapa