Govt attempts to blunt strike's effect

2010-08-23 22:51

Johannesburg - National and provincial governments across the country worked to blunt the effect of a public workers strike in the health and education sectors on Monday.

The strike was being waged by members of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), the Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA, the Public Servants Association, the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA and the SA Democratic Teacher's Union (Sadtu).

They were demanding an 8.6% increase with a R1 000 housing allowance. Government has maintained that it could afford nothing higher than a 7% increase with a R700 housing allowance.

The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) deployed soldiers to 38 hospitals in seven provinces to provide medical care, administrative tasks, and security to hospitals that have been hit by the strike.

Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said they were satisfied with the deployment.

"We are happy with the way things are being secured," Sisulu said at a press briefing following a walk-through with Motsoaledi at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.

Sisulu and Motsoaledi had arrived at Baragwanath Hospital by military helicopter after visiting George Mukhari Hospital in Ga-Rankuwa.

"It is their responsibility to protect and to serve the country if called upon," said Sisulu of the SANDF.

Appeal for volunteers

However, Sisulu said she did not want the SANDF deployment to hospitals to be longer than necessary.

"I would like to keep our stay as short as possible," said Sisulu.

Motsoaledi said no doctors at the Baragwanath Hospital had joined the strike.

"The problem we have is nurses, but the army is holding its own," he said.

According to the SANDF, only Northern Cape and Western Cape had not seen a deployment. The provincial health department claimed that only 72 of the Western Cape's 28 067 health workers were still on strike on Monday morning.

The KwaZulu-Natal provincial government claimed that many of its health workers were also returning to work.

Meanwhile, hospitals and schools continued to appeal to the public for volunteers to replace the work done by striking workers.

Western Cape MEC for Education Donald Grant asked for volunteers to assist with the supervision of learners at schools.

"We welcome any volunteers, especially those with an education background such as retired teachers, to come assist us in supervising learners at schools," said Grant.

'Catch-up' programme

Mpumalanga Education MEC Reginah Mhaule launched a "catch-up programme" for learners who are falling behind in their school work due to the strike.

She called on churches to provide venues for study and for parents to assist their children.

Learner supplements were being published in local newspapers, on the internet and daily radio broadcasts would also provide lessons for students in their homes.

The strike continued on Monday in the context of a court interdict awarded to the government over the weekend which prevents union members from intimidating non-striking workers and community members, blockading the entrances of hospitals and schools and from gathering in "key" areas.

Many striking workers abided by the court interdict while warning they would continue their protests.

"If you are going to Russell's corner, you are saying there's no strike here (at the hospital). If you go to the Engen garage, you are saying, there is no strike here," said Nehawu regional chair Vuyisile Mabaxa, referring to locations near the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

While the protest at Baragwanath went off without incident, the same could not be said of other hospitals as police arrested a total of 67 people in Northern Cape and Gauteng.

Rubber bullets

Six people were arrested at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg for public violence after a policeman was allegedly assaulted. Police then responded with rubber bullets.

Another 23 were arrested at Edenvale Hospital in Johannesburg for blockading an entrance.

In Northern Cape, 38 people were arrested during a march in Kimberly which police said turned violent.

Police also used rubber bullets against striking workers in Addington Hospital in KZN. They also intervened in the Eastern Cape when a non-striking worker was threatened and a road near a hospital blockaded.

Sadtu has decried the police response to the strike, calling it "intimidation".

"We are concerned about the intimidating war-talk being used by the employer," Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said in a statement.

"Sadtu has noted the increased use of violence by the state machinery against our members."

Maluleke said the union was drafting papers to contest some aspects of a labour court interdict the government had secured.

'Real terms'

While government is still holding fast to its wage offer, spokesperson Themba Maseko did try to put a more positive light on it on Monday.

In a move that appeared designed to bring unions back to the negotiating table, he told a media briefing in Pretoria that in "real terms" government was offering an 8.5% increase to public servants.

"In real terms, the state's offer to the unions amounts to 8.5% and means that the real difference between the state and the unions at this point in time is 0.1%," Maseko said.

Explaining government's new arithmetic, Maseko said the figure of 8.5% was the sum of the 7% settlement offer and the so-called pay progression of 1.5%.

While the latter was intended to be performance-linked, "no performance evaluation system is on the table, so more than 90% of workers... will get it automatically", he said.

Maseko insisted the 1.5% "was always on the table", but there had been a "delay in highlighting this fact".