South Africa’s current public sector strike is proving to be a repeat of the ‘07 strike – and in many ways, perhaps worse. Strikers have stepped out of the bounds of legitimacy by intimidating both fellow workers who wish to keep on working, and members of the public.Those attempting to carry on working and provide frontline services to the public are being targeted. Hospitals are being barricaded, with at least one, Natalspruit Hospital on the East Rand near Johannesburg, still surrounded by protestors.
Not only are members of the public being denied access to health care and emergency treatment in this way, but stories of public suffering are causing anguish. Two examples among many- Natalspruit Hospital saw the deaths of two underweight babies simply due to their being denied care by health workers, and in Germiston near Johannesburg a nurse who carried on working was injured by colleagues in a knife attack for her efforts.
The situation at schools is no better. Pupils are missing lessons as classrooms remain shut. There are reports of learners having been chased and threatened by school staff in Kwazulu-Natal province. The strikers are displaying a single-minded ruthlessness in order to make their point – even lessons at private schools, seemingly unaffected by public sector wage disputes, have been targeted, in order to make sure that a total disruption of learning is affected.
Public sector workers have officially been on strike since the 10th August, after wage disputes in which unions demanded an 8.6% salary increase, a housing allowance and other benefits. The government’s offer of a 7% increase and similar benefit offers were unilaterally rejected.
Strikes which affect front line public services, such as health care, are effectively illegal in the country. However, this has not deterred the strikers. Many in the country, not least the ANC government, were granted some relief when the courts awarded the government an injunction against strikers illegally staying away from work relating to, or playing a part in disrupting, front line services. The injunction also applies to those strikers threatening or harassing colleagues who attempt to continue to work. It is to be hoped that a semblance of order can be restored by these efforts, in so far as the basic rights of the public are concerned.
Leader of the political party the Inkatha Freedom Party, Mangosotho Buthelezi, captured the country’s anguish when he said that, ‘every man and woman of conscience must draw a line at what they will do to have their own needs met’’. The strikers, in principle, may be right about their need for more acceptable wages and conditions. However, there is no justification for them to infringe on the rights of or commit crimes upon their fellow citizens. Buthelezi’s call should be heeded by them, and arguably perhaps by some politicians, who could perhaps take steps to do more for their people and less for their pockets, thus avoiding mass indignities like those occurring in the present strike.