- Healthcare services at several hospitals around the country have been disrupted due to a public sector strike.
- There have been numerous reports of intimidation of non-striking staff.
- Patients and staff have been prevented from accessing some facilities.
An ambulance service has accused protesting healthcare workers of trying to remove a child in critical condition from one of its vehicles in KwaZulu-Natal.
This week, public servants affiliated with the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) went on strike at hospitals and other state facilities, despite the government obtaining a court order barring the union's wage strike.
Nehawu and several other public servant unions have been locked in a wage dispute with the government.
On Wednesday, protesters outside General Justice Gizenga Mpanza Regional Hospital in KwaDukuza (formerly Stanger), north of Durban, attacked a private ambulance carrying a child in critical condition.
IPSS Medical spokesperson Samantha Meyrick said paramedics had been transporting the child on advanced life support to the hospital when protesters stopped the ambulance shortly after 11:00.
Protesters reportedly attempted to remove the injured child from the ambulance and assaulted one of the paramedics, said Meyrick.
The ambulance was eventually able to enter the hospital premises, and the child was admitted and treated. However, the paramedics were then prevented from leaving the property for more than an hour, said Meyrick
Healthcare facilities nationwide have been affected by the ongoing Nehawu strike, which started on Monday.
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National Department of Health spokesperson Foster Mohale said KwaZulu-Natal was among the province worst affected by the strike action.
Gauteng, Eastern Cape and the Free State have also been severely affected, with multiple facilities reporting service disruptions due to the strike.
Mohale said major hospitals were the most affected.
He said it was difficult to estimate the extent of the staff shortage, as many employees had stayed away due to intimidation or been prevented from accessing healthcare facilities.
"The majority of healthcare workers could not pitch for work because they were kept out by those who are striking. In the Free State, some strikers took the keys to one facility and locked the workers out. It’s mostly nursing and support services that are affected," Mohale said.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the health department reported disruptions at a number of healthcare facilities in the eThekwini, uThukela and Umgungundlovu districts. Access to several hospitals was blocked, the department said.
Ambulances had also been affected, with protesters preventing their movement in parts of the province.
'We've seen a high degree of intimidation'
Emergency Medical Services in and around eThekwini, and at King Cetshwayo, have reported serious challenges with moving around and transporting patients to and from healthcare facilities.
"The department wishes to remind all of its employees that, as healthcare professionals, they are classified as essential services, which means they are legally prohibited from embarking on industrial action. Contravention of this law could have dire circumstances on all involved individuals," the department warned.
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The Free State Department of Health was forced to seek an urgent interdict against protesters on Wednesday morning in a bid to halt intimidation and attempts to prevent nurses and others from going to work.
On Tuesday, protesters blocked all entrances at Universitas Academic Hospital. They agreed to allow patients and staff to enter following negotiations, although there were still reports of intimidation, said department spokesperson Mondli Mvambi.
Workers were prevented from entering Manapo Hospital in QwaQwa and staff who had worked night shifts were not allowed to leave. There had also been reports of intimidation at Pelonomi Hospital in Bloemfontein, said Mvambi.
In Gauteng, protesters outside Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital on Wednesday said they would continue with their actions until the Constitutional Court ruled on the protest.
They added that their union was appealing a court order barring health workers from protesting.
Outside the hospital, protesters chanted struggle slogans and blocked the entrance to the facility with rocks. However, doctors and ambulances were not barred from entering the hospital.
On Tuesday, the Gauteng health department said services at a number of its hospitals were impacted by the strike. Spokesperson Motalatale Modiba said ambulance crews transporting patients were finding it difficult to access hospitals.
"In some other facilities, we've seen a high degree of intimidation, with workers feeling that the environment wasn't conducive [to them being there]," he said.
'Respect the rights of others'
Modiba added that, in Vosloorus, nurses who had worked night shifts at the Thelle Mogoerane Regional Hospital were effectively confined to the facility on Tuesday as roads around the building had been blocked.
He said police had been called in to clear blocked entrances at hospitals.
According to Mohale, the national department had asked police to "intensify enforcement" in order to allow patients to enter healthcare facilities and for "those who report to duty to go without threat".
"They must allow those who want to save lives to go to work. We cannot afford to lose lives due to the actions of strikers."
The South African Human Rights Commission has raised concerns over "the continued use of violence" during protest actions, including the wage dispute by Nehawu.
"The commission implores those who are protesting to also bear their responsibilities, not just rights, in mind. Among others, they are urged to respect the rights of others, more especially in essential services where blocking of hospital operations, as reported in the media, can have devastating consequences on patients who need medical assistance," it said.
"Users of healthcare facilities are also feeling the brunt of the high cost of living and should not be further disadvantaged by being denied access to healthcare which they need."
Meanwhile, Cosatu called for a peaceful and lawful public service strike, following "disturbing reports of violent incidents and destruction of property by the striking public service workers".
"While we fully support the striking workers and believe that their fight is a legitimate one, we regret the disruption to public services which the strike has caused and any violent incidents or damage to property," said spokesperson Sizwe Pamla.
"We urge our members on strike to continue to conduct their strike in a peaceful, disciplined and lawful manner."