Strikes then and now

2010-08-21 00:00

ONE of the legacies of the apartheid era is South Africans going on strike. Pictures of people taking to the streets would be a dominant feature of the apartheid-era montage, if ever there was one. I would argue that it is through strikes that the war was won as they laid bare the injustices of the system. Things reached boiling point at events such as the student riots of June 16 and the Sharpeville uprisings of March 21, among many other public acts of defiance against the inhumane institution that was the government.

What made the toyi-toyiing even more challenging at the time was that the mostly black participants of the mass action did not have any rights and this saw the state’s policing and military machinery being used to abuse, maim and mutilate the disenfranchised majority of the citizens of this country.

The debate continues about who had it more difficult between those who were exiled and those who remained in the country and my call is the latter. If you do not know the effect of tear gas, there isn’t much you can tell me, especially if you were sitting in Sussex reading Yeats while we were being sjamboked and ducking rubber bullets.

This week has been characterised by mass action by public servants which has become increasingly violent as the week has unfolded.

The major difference in the nature of strikes during the struggle and now, is that strikers have more rights now and the present strikes are mostly about salary increases, while in the past, strikes were more about human rights.

While strikes were for human rights then, the more rights people have been afforded, the more the strikers have abused the rights of others. People belong to different unions and some people do not belong to any union and those who choose to go to work during a strike, who are often referred to as amagundane (rats), are intimidated and even killed in some instances.

While the government needs to look after and remunerate public servants fairly, public servants also have an obligation to deliver critical services to the taxpayers, even during a strike. Both parties need to make concessions and reach a middle ground with the wage negotiations. In the meantime, the government should not treat the unruly strikers with kid gloves as they intimidate and assault people and trash the streets and other infrastructure. If people behave like savages, they must be treated as such.

What irks me most is that when everything has been said and done, we will be back to low service levels, as some lazy public servants sit at work doing nothing besides twiddling their thumbs and scratching their behinds. Whatever increase they are granted must be justified by what should be a visible commitment to serve the public of this country efficiently. It is the public who is bankrolling all the departments they work in and not only their salaries, but also their increases. To borrow from general Bheki Cele, when they come back from the strike, each public servant “must be a mmmmmm kind of a person, not hhawu”.

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