FRIDAY BRIEFING | Emergency room: Who should we blame for violence during Nehawu strike?

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Emergency room: Who should we blame for violence during Nehawu strike?   

South Africa's public health sector has long been under attack. 

Just read health ombud Professor Malegapuru Makgoba's report into mismanagement, overcrowding and failures at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital (RMMCH) to get a sense of just how dire it is.

After Dr Tim de Maayer wrote an open letter about conditions at the hospital, nurses and doctors came out to confirm conditions were similar at other public health facilities around the country. 

The ones at the receiving end of the lack of infrastructure are the poor majority, who struggle to access good quality healthcare at public facilities which are under-resourced and understaffed. The poor majority were again affected this month when trade union Nehawu embarked on an almost two-week strike over a demand for a 10% wage increase. 

As the strike progressed, reports emerged of increasing violence. In one instance at a KwaZulu-Natal hospital, striking workers refused to allow paramedics to bring a critically-ill teenager in for treatment.  

Last week, the health department laid the blame for at least four deaths at the trade union's door. Western Cape provincial secretary Baxolise Mali afterwards told striking union members, "The employer says people are dying. It is not our responsibility to keep people's lives."

It has been a tough few years for workers affiliated to Nehawu. They have had to deal with the fallout from the Covid pandemic, where nurses worked to the bone, often with few resources. And now that we finally seem to be finding our feet after the pandemic, the cost of living, in part due to the war in Ukraine, has risen drastically. Many are finding it difficult to make ends meet. 

But it is hard to feel any kind of sympathy for the workers' plight when there seems to be little empathy and care from them in the heat of a strike. 

In this week's Friday Briefing, former trade unionist and News24 columnist Ebrahim Harvey examines how Nehawu leaders failed not just their members but also the public in handling this strike. 

We also have a submission from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation's Professor Malose Langa and Boikanyo Moloto, who reflect on how the government's inefficiencies at multiple levels could lead to more and more violent strikes. 

The University of the Free States' associate professor, Sethulego Matebesi, argues that transactional activism in the form of perverse incentives has permeated trade unionism, leading to what we saw over the last two weeks.

And finally, Dr Lumkile Mondi from Wits University considers the country's fiscal position and what it means as the government enters a new round of wage talks with public sector unions. 

It is a heavy read before the weekend, but gives much food for thought.


Vanessa Banton

Opinions editor. 

A history of violence: Poor Nehawu leadership fails to win public support for strike

While no strike is ever a Sunday picnic, the question of violence and intimidation by strikers, especially in areas considered essential, such as public hospitals, is not only legally and morally unacceptable, but unwise for the unions themselves, argues Ebrahim Harvey.

Nehawu strike a reminder our democracy is in poor health

Wage-related protests are intended to demonstrate workers' power in holding systems accountable, but Malose Langa and Boikanyo Moloto ask what must be done when this action risks perpetuating cycles of inequality.

Rent-seeking trade union leaders don't assist workers' plight

Following the recent violent Nehawu strike, Sethulego Matebesi asks how we have reached a stage of paralysis when it comes to strikes in South Africa.

Govt vs Treasury: Can we afford the 7% public sector wage offer?

While the finance minister focuses on protecting South Africa's fiscal position, some of his colleagues have cast their eyes on the looming 2024 general elections, and keeping the public sector a critical partner, writes Lumkile Mondi.

Cartoon by carlos

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