/ 3 September 2010

Why I broke the picket line

Last week I became a scab.

Entering the grounds of the Helen Joseph Hospital on Wednesday through a side entrance guarded by security men examining the boots of incoming cars, I walked past rifle-wielding members of the defence force, dodged armoured vehicles and heard the muted strains of protest songs emanating from the red-shirted strikers held at bay by the locked front gates and a posse of police.

In a huge storeroom I and three other volunteers folded an apparently endless supply of bed linen and hospital gowns. An oddly assorted group we were — a Helen Joseph technician with nothing to do because she had no asthma sufferers to test, an out-of-work PA, a Bryanston matron and her daughter-in-law, who has an active social conscience.

In a corner an urgent conference was taking place among non-striking hospital personnel struggling to find supplies for the three operating theatres that were functioning. Suppliers, it seems, were afraid to send their trucks in. From what I could pick up it seemed that ambulances were to be used to ferry the equipment — might as well, they weren’t bringing in many patients.

Two days later I was back again, this time wielding a (not very clean) floor mop in the radiology department in the company of a social work student from the University of Johannesburg. On this occasion there were signs of patients, at least in that section of the almost deserted hospital. Two inpatients lay passively on beds for the entire time I was there, awaiting their turn at the understaffed X-ray machines; outpatients sat patiently on chairs as the skeleton staff struggled to get around to them. The two floor cleaners provided a temporary diversion and, in one case, some occupational therapy, as a restless and vociferous patient commandeered a mop and showed us “how it should be done”.

What brought us there from our separate worlds? The answer, it seemed, was a shared sense of outrage at the collateral damage; the human fallout of the public servants’ strike — the dead babies, the ill and the elderly turned away from the hospitals, the blighted futures of schoolchildren already supremely disadvantaged by an inferior education system and teachers who, in the main, it seems, simply do not care.

I have long believed that our society cares far too little for those on whom our social health depends, from domestic workers to trained nurses, from garbage collectors to teachers. It is an insane world that will reward with riches no childminder, teacher or nurse can begin to dream of, a person who can kick a soccer ball or knock out an opponent, or win a beauty contest, or splurge, using the contents of the public purse.

Indeed, the salaries of nurses and teachers in the public service are a disgrace, but do the ends justify the means that have been used in this strike — the intimidation, the bullying, the destruction, the violent words and actions? Was there no other way to make an absolutely valid point and a totally legitimate demand than to cause loss of life?

Can the nurses who left premature babies to die, the teachers who abandoned matriculants at the most critical point in their school careers, go back to their wards and their classrooms with a clear conscience? Do we actually want them to?

What does it all say about the humanity of a people who will toss the word ubuntu into any argument so we can congratulate ourselves on how wonderful we are?

As I left the grounds of the Helen Joseph on Friday a hearse drove in. Would it have been needed had those who were toyi-toying outside been at their posts? That I cannot answer, but neither can I answer the question that plagues me most about this strike: At what point does the right to fair pay trump the right to life?