Maverick Citizen


Doctors fear more loss of life as health workers strike set to intensify on Monday.

Doctors fear more loss of life as health workers strike set to intensify on Monday.
Angry Monwabisi Mesilani and his wife Nombulelo Qhinga outside Nelson Mandela Hospital in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, after being told to go back home amid the Nehawu strike on 6 March 2023. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

(NEHAWU) promised that on Monday 13 March it will resume and intensify its strike for better wages and conditions: “to demonstrate to government the seriousness with which we take the concerted effort to underplay the role and significance of public servants who are at the coalface of service delivery.” 

At a media briefing,  held in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, on Sunday by all of its senior elected leadership, NEHAWU  General Secretary, Zola Saphetha, noted that last week all Provincial health departments, except the North West, had brought successful interdicts against strike activities that threatened health services and that “we called on our members to work within the framework of the law.”  

However, NEHAWU’s five-page statement was completely silent on the issue of harm to patients and the system. 

Responding to claims made by the Health Minister that at least four patients had died, Zaphetha said “it’s unfortunate to lose life, but we reserve our rights to establish the truth [of whether this was due to the strike]. The union must be given space; once it’s known publicly what happened we can respond.”

“We are depicted as a union that has created a genocide, we are the opposite of that.”

NEHAWU’s President Mike Shingange built on this claiming that reports of deaths and other harm was “propaganda to turn the public against us.”

He said the union’s anger was “not at the recipients of public health services, but at the state as an institution.” 

Shingange said “part of our demands is to try and strengthen the health system” noting that “very few public services are fit for purpose” as a result of budget and staff cuts. He said the health workforce is “traumatized and frustrated” by what they have gone through and that workers were “demoralized and demotivated.”

“We are happy with the response to the strike; we have been suffocated for such a long time; when are we allowed to defend ourselves?” he asked.     

In its defence, NEHAWU harshly criticized the attacks on collective bargaining by the government. “At stake is not just the wage dispute of 2022/23 – it is also collective bargaining given the unilateralism that is now prevailing in the public sector.”

Zaphetha said that at the end of last week, NEHAWU had again entered into negotiations with “the employer” at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC), with an intention to try and reach a settlement, but – despite willingness by the Minister of Public Services and Administration Noxolo Kiviet “to resolve the impasse” – these negotiations had been scuppered, something that was blamed on the inflexible and intransigent position of Finance Minister, Enoch Godongwana.

On Monday the Labour Appeal Court is also due to hand down judgment on NEHAWU’s appeal against an execution order by the Labour Court that had interdicted the strike “on the eve of its commencement last week.” NEHAWU seems to anticipate it will lose this appeal, as it promises to “immediately meet our lawyers for legal recourse to be considered.” 

Meanwhile, health workers, and doctors, in particular, are extremely fearful of what a second week of disruptions and intimidation will bring.

Over the weekend the Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, informed a group of health workers that a team of SA Military Health Services personnel had just arrived at Thelle Mogoerane Hospital (in Johannesburg) “to give highly needed medical support, mainly nursing.” According to the Minister, “they left Klerksdorp-Tshepong complex earlier today once there was stability.”

Phaahla said he would “welcome practical suggestions about how to protect health services which take into consideration the challenges created by the Constitutional architecture … amongst these is the semi-federal nature of functions such as health, basic education, and others.”

The overall impression is that health users are being crushed between the demands of the unions and the intransigence of the government. Who exactly is to be held responsible is cold comfort for a person needing emergency medical care. There are moves afoot by patient advocacy groups to persuade (and if necessary compel) the union to guarantee safety and access to treatment for patients and other health workers. DM/MC   


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Smythe says:

    And when this is over, are the dedicated staff who respected and continued to be dedicated to the well-being of their patients supposed to work alongside these “people”. The union bosses must be charged with the deaths of the patients who died during this strike. They can’t just wash their hands of the responsibility with a comment like “part of our demands is to try and strengthen the health system”. The patients at those hospitals did nothing to hurt the union. Why is the union hurting them? I don’t understand it.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    Dear Minister of Health, how about the army being deployed to healthcare facilities, backed up by the police to arrest any strikers who block access to those facilities?

  • Frans Ferreira says:

    What ever happened to “BLACK LIVES MATTER” or is money more important?
    NEHAWU do not think that any lives matter if you consider how they treat the poor, black elders.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    Thank you, Paddy, for your suggestion.
    We are meeting to talk about what we can do.
    We hope to have a media announcement in three weeks’ time.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    There seems to be a lot of singing and dancing by people that are apparently traumatised and frustrated.

  • Gerrie Pretorius says:

    There is a simple solution to this and any other strike. Charge the leadership criminally. In this case charge them with the murder of all patients who die as a result of the strike. In some cases, charge them with assault or damage to property etc. As with directors of companies, the leadership of trade unions should take responsibility.

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