University of Pretoria workers’ strike gives students a bitter taste of the reality of SA’s paradoxes

University of Pretoria workers’ strike gives students a bitter taste of the reality of SA’s paradoxes
Nehawu members blocked all the entrances to the University of Pretoria during a protest to demand a salary increase and a 13th cheque, 20 February 2024, Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

Seeing the older workers in their red Nehawu T-shirts toyi-toying outside the gates on the one side, and the fresh young faces yearning to learn on the other, brought home the invidious position we find ourselves in as a country.

Dear DM168 reader,

This week, my son started his first classes at the University of Pretoria after a fun week of orientation. It’s been such a joy to see him come into his own. He loves university life so much: the lectures, the lecturers, sport, the diversity of students and subjects, Day House activities, making new friends. He jokingly calls himself a Tukkie and says it’s “Tuks of Niks [Tuks or nothing]”.

Sadly, on Day 2 of the academic year, his enthusiasm for university was tempered by a touch of South African reality. When I drove him to the main entrance of the Hatfield campus, there were police cars, a loudspeaker playing music, and National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) members who worked at the university were protesting. No students were allowed to enter.

I had to drive my son several times around Hatfield as thousands of eager young students flooded the surrounding streets and pavements, locked outside the campus gates at almost every entrance. Niks access. The doors of learning and teaching were shut.

Some daredevils risked injury by climbing over the high fences and walls to make it to class, while others were stranded outside the gates. No university official came to address them. No one came to open the gates to let them in.

It was chaos and confusion. I offered to drive my son home, but he was determined not to miss classes and he found an access point at a turnstile that connected to a bridge to the main campus.

Seeing the older workers in their red Nehawu T-shirts toyi-toying outside the gates on the one side, and the fresh young faces yearning to learn on the other, brought home the invidious position we find ourselves in as a country.

The workers have every right to a legally protected strike, and their demand for an above-inflation increase of 7% sounds pretty reasonable considering inflation in January was 5.3% and food inflation was 7.2%. What they and the interim vice-chancellor, Professor Themba Mosia, and his management team do not have is the right to lock entrance gates and stop students from learning.

The workers deny closing the gates and obstructing students, but irrespective of who locked those gates – the workers or management – both are equally responsible for infringing on the students’ right to education by not allowing them entry or ensuring them access by preventing strikers from blocking students’ entry.

Rather than opening the gates and monitoring that the workers protest peacefully and not interfere with the students, the university informed all students on Wednesday that they should stay at home and take online classes. Those who did not have internet access could brave the library if they managed to get in. The less advantaged students once again suffer. What a start to a first week on campus.

On Thursday, News 24 reported that the university finally toughened up, and confirmed it served striking employees with a notice informing them it had approached the court to “maintain order and safety” on the premises for students and non-striking employees.

Most of us can empathise with the Nehawu workers on strike because, without inflationary pay increases, our salaries are worth less every year while food prices, petrol, clothing and medical aid fees increase way above inflation.

I can also understand how tough it must be for the university to meet the strikers’ demands for 13th cheques, a once-off bonus, five days’ leave encashment and long-service cash awards when every public entity faces budget cuts as wage demands increase.

University of Pretoria spokesperson Rikus Delport explained to News24 that the university had a 1.7% cut in government funding, tuition fee increases are capped and the university has massive student debt of R650-million. On top of that, it had to spend more than R80-million to run generators because of load shedding.

It’s a catch-22 that requires cool heads and compromise, not trampling on students’ desire to learn. Years of misspending and fleecing of state coffers, collapsed state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and Transnet, an economy that is spluttering on a wing and a prayer, tax avoidance, and poor leadership has led us to the highly indebted, broke state we are in. The 7.5% increase the government gave to state employees has to come from somewhere and departmental budgets are being slashed left, right and centre.

The impact of the austerity budgets is huge, directly hitting essential services. In our DM168 lead story this week, journalist Tamsin Metelerkamp spoke to several senior doctors at public hospitals who are at the coalface of cost-containment initiatives in our health sector. I struggle to imagine how we can build a functional National Health Insurance when our public doctors and nurses are so overstretched in a climate of fiscal austerity.

I was pleased to see Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana put his foot down to stop the endless bleed of billions into the bottomless pit of state-owned enterprises by not giving them another cent of bailouts, as our finance writer Ray Mahlaka reports in the Business Maverick section of the paper. Hopefully, this tough love by Godongwana will spread to every tier of government.

Meanwhile, at last we have a 2024 elections date to determine our fate on 29 May, folks. Let’s use our X to ensure we keep the looters and pie-in-the-sky promisers of paradise at bay, and get some genuinely visionary, competent, level-headed, caring and compassionate people to steer our country out of the morass.

Let’s keep our heads down, work hard, tighten those budget belts and all play a small part in making South Africa a better place for everyone.

I will be away on study leave for the next two weeks (I’m doing my Henley MBA exams, trying to wrap my head around finance, operations and processes, and people management). My trusted colleague Sukasha Singh will be at the helm of the newspaper while I’m away, so please send all your letters to her at [email protected]

Yours in defence of truth,


This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    It’s okay to be angry that your son’s very first week started so badly.
    Maybe your son has a bursary, but it doesn’t sound like it and your family is very likely making great sacrifices to give your children the best education possible.

    All this overly cautious and careful writing not be insensitive to the varsity workers should also be informed by the fact that the union didn’t strike when they became aware of their grievances.

    They deliberately chose to wait for the first academic week to cause maximum disruption- they are showing no sensitivity to you and your son, the lectures, nor the entire academic project.

    So I find the handwringing perpetuating this particular Modus operandi.
    We need to call it out for what it is. Totally unacceptable employee behaviour which must have consequences.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Absolutely! NEHAWU and similar want to disrupt and i have little sympathy for them….. indeed, in this instance the demands for 13th cheques and bonuses are unaffordable, especially after all round Government wage increases, mostly not budgeted.

    • A Halebahat says:

      As a student at the university of pretoria, I’ve made sure to keep up on this event. NEHAWU started their strike on the 15th of February, A full week before classes started, and didn’t block access to gates at this time. Many of us students support their strike, especially given the fact that we’ve gotten a registration fee increase, and our Vice Chancellor is getting a salary increase this year too, pushing his yearly income to more than two million, a salary that is much more than reasonable for this position. They are asking us for more money and paying more money to upper management. They are also planning on building a new Engineering building, despite us having three already, with little attention being given to other faculties as they bring in less money. Although the demands of the workers who help us day to day with academics, registration and fees are a lot, they’re not entirely unreasonable and the fact that we are being held from our campus is a last measure tactic to push the university, after a whole week of pre-class protest in which no entrances were blocked.

    • AJ Mnyandu says:

      I love this comment so much 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

  • Peter Smith says:

    Hi Heather, it might be a paradox to some readers. But the World Bank and many ratings agencies including Moody’s predicted this as far back as 2010. With no economic growth and the population growing at 1m per year, the writing on the wall says the next step is social unrest. Another reality is that government employees are paid substantially higher salaries than in the private sector which in itself is unsustainable. And the government has now run out of money with declining tax revenues as businesses are struggling for survival due to failing infrastructure and government services. The next phase will be social unrest. This is not a paradox and there is no fix. The ANC ignored the warnings for 14 years and now it is too late. Maybe this is a good case study for students to learn from while they can.

    • Bill Gild says:

      Social unrest has been a feature of SA life for quite a number of years. It has been episodic and scattered, with lack of service delivery the most frequent cause (although taxi violence is a close second). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, as the expression goes, to realise that as the poor and unhoused get poorer and more plentiful, a point will be reached when the SAPS simply cannot contain the unrest. At that point, which I believe lies in the not too distant future, those of us (the middle and upper classes) living in our “bubbles” will one day wake up to the reality that supermarket and groceey store shelves are empty as a consequence of major arterial highways being blocked. At that point, we will join the other “failed states”, not only in Africa, but throughout the world. I hope that I don’t live long enough to witness this.

  • Wayne Ashbury Ashbury says:

    Hood luck with your MBA exams Heather

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    More than 50% of SA’s workforce are employed by the state or SOE’s or other state enterprises, national and local.
    In what universe do you imagine that the incumbent political party will EVER adopt an austerity budget that affects that lot? Just wait for the budget re-allocations post-election day – no way can this government resist the need to keep paying all those SOE incompetents their bloated salaries at above inflation increases.

  • Iam Fedup says:

    Heather writes that “The workers have every right to a legally protected strike,” but I would question that. First, this strike was NOT legal, but more importantly, they created chaos, and prevented the students and staff from doing what they wanted to do. So is it okay to demand your rights while you trample on the rights of many, many more people? In another article in this journal DM reports on the awful year that Pick n Pay has had – the worst in its history. That too is a direct result of worker intimidation. When my wife was threatened with physical violence at the entrance to the store in Norwood, that was the day we decided to never shop there again. The Vice Chancellor took far too long to respond, and even though I was a student in the 1970s, my opinion has not changed. Clamp down hard on the strikers, and let them suffer the consequences.

  • Samson Ngwenyama says:

    One of the most traumatic experience indeed. When you think you are about to embark on your first step as an independent citizen then you find your back against the wall.
    I really understand your child’s frustration and he was lucky because you came handy to offer him the assurance he needed. Yet it could have been perilous to those without their parents or guardians to offer that moral support as they face those challenging moments.
    Nonetheless, all the best for your exams which is another daunting task on its own.

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