Why has govt been so hard on doctors?

2009-07-01 00:00

AT the weekend’s South African National Editors’ Forum awards ceremony, President Jacob Zuma listed “strikes, pickets and protests” as being among the ways in which South Africans are able to exercise their hard-won right to freedom of expression. This week, over 200 striking doctors in KwaZulu-Natal were axed. What’s behind the government’s hard-line approach to the doctors’ strike?

Dr Ivor Chipkin of the HSRC’s democracy and governance programme described the firing of doctors as an “act of extreme desperation”.

“It seems to me the problem is symptomatic of the scale of the financial and management crisis in the public service. This issue gives us a tiny window into the scale of the disaster, which the government hasn’t found the resources to address.” Nor will it admit to the scale of the problem.

Chipkins said the situation in health is partly a “legacy” of the Mbeki era.

“The previous administration allowed, for a whole range of reasons, the decline of the public health system and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

He said chronic under-investment in the public health system took place at exactly the time when demands on its services were the highest and that “games” around HIV/Aids, for example, allowed the government to understate the scale of the health crisis and justify underspending.

He said although a new administration is at the helm, it is still an ANC government. “They can criticise it [the Mbeki administration] but can’t go so far as to disown it. Thus, to redress the situation means to take ownership of 10 years of monumental errors and a consistent refusal to acknowledge the problems.”

Similar problems plagued the country’s water and electricity infrastructure, he said.

While there was a real desire to expand services, he said, considerable state resources have gone into creation of a new black middle class and on “prestige” infrastructure such as military tanks, airports, the Gautrain, etcetera. The latter was motivated, particularly in the Mbeki era, by the desire to ensure the country was portrayed as a modern, sophisticated, black-run state. “All at the cost of unsexy stuff like service delivery and infrastructure maintenance,” said Chipkin.

Speaking in his personal capacity, Centre for Civil Society staff member and student Trevor Ngwane said the government’s harsh response to the doctors’ strike has exposed “the populist rhetoric” of the government under Jacob Zuma.

“Zuma was able to take over as ANC president on a pro-poor ticket. But as leftist intellectuals, we could see the contradiction between his populist rhetoric and his overseas trips to assure the international community that economic policy wouldn’t change.” Now, government is showing its true colours, he said.

“The fact that [Human Settlement minister] Toxyo Sexwale came out, without provocation, attacking the doctors [on Friday] is clear indication that the new ANC government will continue to attack the poor,” he said.

Ngwane said the doctors’ strike is a continuation of the public service strikes of two years ago which were never properly resolved. “That public sector strike was partly ended by the promise of a new man in Zuma and the scapegoating of Thabo Mbeki,” said Ngwane.

Ngwane said the current strike shows the depth of the crisis faced by government, particularly because protest action and community unrest seem to be increasing, rather than declining under the new administration.

Zakhele Ndlovu, UKZN political analyst, said some people in the ANC have accused doctors of a lack of patriotism because they are putting lives at risk. “But at the end of the day the doctors have a strong case,” he said.

Part of the government response is frustration, he said, particularly in the face of possible looming strikes by teachers. “The fear is that if they give in to the doctors, they will encourage other public servants to strike.”

On Zuma’s comments about freedom of expression, Ndlovu said Zuma is playing the “good cop” role while the provincial government plays the bad cop. As the new president in the wake of Mbeki’s aloofness, Ndlovu said Zuma needs to project an image of someone sympathetic to legitimate causes, someone who can listen, take a broader view and be empathetic.


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