'Our demands are simple and straightforward'

Public servants expressed their determination to continue their indefinite strike this week, closing down schools across the country and interrupting hospital and other government services.

Union organisers planned to “shut down the government” on Friday, buoyed by support from the Congress of South African Trade Unions central executive committee and federation affiliates the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) and the National Union of Mineworkers.

The songs and cries of workers echoed throughout the hospitals and streets of Johannesburg as the service strike rolled into its sixth day on Wednesday.

“Thiba ka mo, thiba ka mo, rebulaya Moleketi [‘Block this side, block that side so that we can get Moloketi’],” a circle of workers sang, adapting a Bloemfontein Celtics song, in the halls of the Johannesburg Hospital. Many nurses returned to work but up to a hundred workers continued protest in its corridors.

“Our demands are simple and straightforward,” said Ishmael Mukhari, a shop steward for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu). “We are not asking for 57%,” he said, referring to the proposed salary increase for President Thabo Mbeki. “We are demanding 12%.”

He said that the government’s most recent offer of 6,5% was only “R6,50 in R100, which they will tax and you will remain with nothing”.

The hospital’s CEO, Sagie Pillay, said that many nurses had returned to work after about 80% of workers’ went on strike last Friday.

“I don’t think this implies that they do not support demands for higher wages and better living conditions,” he said, adding that they continued to participate in lunchtime demonstrations.

Military medical personnel helped to fill the 60% to 70% shortage of support staff, including porters, cleaners and kitchen staff, he said.

Pillay said that rumours and perception fuelled “genuine fear and anxiety” of physical intimidation among staff. Security had been doubled and management increased their presence at the hospital, he said.

Mukhari said that Minister of Public Service and Administration Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi intimidated union members by saying that striking essential service workers would face dismissal this week.

“Today our comrade is threatening us,” he said, noting that former health minister Rina Venter had threatened strikers with dismissal during the strike of 1992.

Several strikers said that “our government” could do more to meet workers’ demands.

“In 1994, we said that we would fight for our government,” said an elderly woman with a Nehawu bandana standing in Harrison Street as a group of protesters marched down the road outside the Department of Home Affairs in Johannesburg.

“Why do we have to fight when we want money?” she asked. “To tell the truth, I don’t like to strike.”

Earlier, a housing official, who asked to be called Charles, stood outside home affairs in a throng of workers and an intermittent drizzle of rain.

A Nehawu shop steward said that roughly five in every 20 home affairs officials were working inside.

“Before, we understood that our government is still young and is still growing,” said Charles. “Our president was marketing himself outside the country for the sake of the economy.

“He has marketed himself enough; it is better for the public service to get what they want. “As professionals, we do not strike randomly,” he said.

After five years in the public service, Charles said that he could still not own his own house or medical aid on his R5 000 monthly income.

Demonstrators in hospitals similarly complained that it was ironic that they could not afford medical aid.

Many members of the public experienced frustration because of the strike—but said that they nevertheless supported the action.

Mavis Hams, a 55-year-old mother of two, spent 45 minutes and R15 on taxis to get to home affairs. Arriving to closed doors and marching workers, she said she wished there had been more clarity on what the public should do during the strike.

Clutching the hand of her six-year-old—out of school because of the strike—she initially questioned why teachers, who were well educated, earned about R8 000 a month and enjoyed school holidays, were on strike.

Hams said that she struggled in the face of rising maize prices and a meagre R400 in child-support grants.

She later said that she knew several teachers who paid for three taxis each day to get to work. Soon she was holding a Nehawu poster and nodding to the songs, having been rebuked by a hawk-eyed protester for talking to reporters.

At Johannesburg Hospital, two young, black medical technicians in white coats said that the strike slowed their laboratory work. They confessed they knew little about the strike but said that the workers deserved more.

“I feel pity for these people but they must behave themselves, they mustn’t attack people,” said a middle-aged white man seated in the hospital who said that the strikers did not bother him.

Two seats away, an elderly black pensioner, who gave her name only as Helen, said: “Our children are working very hard and they get nothing.”

She said she ordinarily waits 15 to 30 minutes to get her tablets, but had been waiting for two hours that day.

Another bystander said that if black people did not toyi-toyi, they would not get a salary increase, whereas white people just had to ask.

The relatively small turnout of striking workers at the entrance to the Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital appeared to be a poor reflection of the strike’s impact on the hospital. The roughly 50 strikers who were present at midday dispersed by the afternoon.

One striker sulked that members of health workers’ union, Hospersa, said they did not have a mandate to strike beyond June 1.

In two hours at the hospital, the Mail & Guardian spotted almost 30 military personnel with their fatigues tucked neatly into laced-up boots, with red berets perched on their heads, pushing gurneys or walking in orderly groups.

A grim-faced doctor said that their spirits were dealt a blow by the absence of both nurses and support staff. Another doctor said that they could not teach or get certain tests done.

On-duty technicians tensely described their fears that strikers would assault them on the bridge leading out of the hospital. They said that strikers roamed the hospital to identify non-strikers.

In a nearby ward, a huddle of female nurses described the intimidation that they faced to a male colleague.

Department of Health spokesperson Zanele Mngidi said that there had been incidents of intimidation. In some cases the police had been called in but the department was sensitive not to be infringing on strikers’ rights to protest.

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