Ralph Mathekga

Crossing the moral line in protest: have we gone too far?

2018-06-04 10:06
Vandalism at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital. (Supplied)

Vandalism at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital. (Supplied)

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Following the recent protests at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg where staff decided to take out their frustrations on defenceless patients it has become clear that the worst place to be a medical patient is in Gauteng Province. 

It was reported last week that some of the staff at Charlotte Maxeke thought that it was strategic of them to thrash the hospital and intimidate patients, effectively bringing the provision of healthcare to a complete standstill. 

All this performance – under the guise of the right to protest – was meant to send the message to the employers that they should pay staff their supposedly deserved "performance bonuses". 

Indeed, the staff put a performance worth noting into their protests. But I am not sure the performance deserves a financial reward in the form of bonus. 

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi referred to the behaviour of the hospital staff as "hooliganism". I understand the minister's indignation towards the staff. Their behaviour is beyond repugnant and even more so for health workers who should be expected to draw a moral line when they voice their concerns on labour related matters. 

When they failed to regard the well-being of patients to be above the matter of their bonuses the staff members failed to draw that moral line. 

The sad part of this story is how it showed up the fact that the moral line as to how far one can go in the course of disruptions when voicing one's concerns no longer exists. 

The idea that some services are essential and too critical to be interrupted is something of the past. Therefore, as a nation we have reached that point of "anything goes" when it comes to how to protest and the extent to which our protests should disrupt the normal course of life. 

Of course, for someone with a burning issue that is raised through protesting, the idea that there should be restraints to the protest might come across as asking people to strike only during lunch time, to minimise disruptions. Indeed, it makes no sense to stage a peaceful protest in a country where the more disruptive and violent a protest is, the speedier the response from authorities. It’s a vicious cycle and it appears no one is to blame for this impasse. 

Back when a certain gentleman was nominated to lead out country’s moral regeneration, I had fantasies that our nation would develop a sense of what is right and wrong irrespective of who is to blame for wrongdoing. I shall not mention the name of that gentleman who was tasked to deliver us to moral high ground because his name has been mentioned so many times in wrongdoing lately that one more mention would certainly stop many from reading further. That said, that gentleman only delivered us to a moral abyss. The effect is that morality is dead. Long live the politics of bargaining and survival! 

When the health minister pleaded with hospital staff to draw the line and show respect to fellow humans, the staff would rather point to the failure by the minister to prevent his provincial health counterparts from dehumanising mental health patients in what we now refer to as the Life Esidimeni tragedy. 

The reality is Charlotte Maxeke staff members who dehumanised patients who are supposed be under their care are emulating their bosses, namely government. 

Society now has to choose between the dehumanised staff who are taking revenge by, in turn, dehumanising their patients, and a government that is pleading for a show of humanity from the staff that works in an environment where policy makers do not show a sense of moral virtue in the way they manage public funds and other resources. 

All this shows that for society to survive and self-preserve, it has to redefine its moral line and not rely on politicians to do that. Neither should the broader society rely on interest groups such as some trade unions and their members to define what constitutes an acceptable moral line. 

The problem with our society is that we tend to look for solutions exactly where the problems emanate from: political leaders and interest groups.

Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes.

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