Justified strike, unjustified violence
It is the largest strike in democratic
All of us that complain bitterly about the poor service we receive from civil servants such as nurses, police and teachers, and complain about the level of corruption in some of these sectors should pause for a moment to consider how much we as a society actually value these public servants – as reflected in how much we pay them to serve us.
Their salary demands certainly are not unreasonable and their tough negotiating attitude is definitely justified. The fact that this strike brings together four union federations and a number of independent unions of public sector workers in a joint action is itself a reflection of the level of anger and frustration among these workers who regularly hear about how the South African economy is growing but don’t see the real benefits of this growth for themselves.
But such frustration and anger is not sufficient justification for some of what has been characterising this strike.
In particular, it is a grave problem that health workers have taken the kind of attitude they have. Many of them insist on striking even though, in terms of the Labour Relations Act, they are regarded as essential service workers and hence not allowed to go on strike. Such a stipulation is, of course, entirely justifiable and moral.
Hospitals have to function. Sick people have to receive treatment. The measure of the morality of a society is how that society treats its most vulnerable members. This includes those that are sick, the aged and the children. When we treat these vulnerable groups simply as pawns to serve our own interests – no matter how justified those interests might be – we lose a fundamental moral argument about the justice of our cause. When we are unconcerned that the fight for our own interests will endanger not only the well-being but even the lives of people within these vulnerable groups, then we, as a society, border on the criminal.
Let us also be clear about the state of vulnerability that we are referring to. I have a medical aid hospital plan. If my family members need to be hospitalised, we will go to a private clinic. Most of the public sector workers on strike belong to medical aid schemes that provide them with very good benefits – mostly better than what I have. The people who need to access health services at public hospitals and who are currently being turned away from Chris Hani Baragwanath in Soweto and from King Edward in Durban and from Tygerberg in Cape Town by striking nurses come from the poorest sections of our South African community.
They are not just vulnerable because they are ill; they were already vulnerable because of their poverty. They are, most of them, part of the working class. And, most of them pay a considerable amount of money to transport themselves to hospitals – only to then be turned away without treatment.
And so, we might ask, what is the commitment of striking workers to the broader interests of the working class – not just to workers. What is their commitment to working class mothers and gogos who have to access health services? What is their commitment to babies born (or about to be born) into the working class? What is their commitment to the parents of any child who might die because of the strike?
While we all should not only sympathise with but actively support the just struggles of public servants for better wages and better working conditions, we should also expect better service from our public servants. And that better service, in the case of health workers, should be available even during a strike like the current one.
The ongoing, constant struggle of workers for better working and living conditions is an extremely important one and critical for the development of a democratic society. Workers form the backbone of a society and their proper and just compensation for the work they do and their building of our society must be provided for.
But workers in the public sector, particularly those in sectors such as health, have a special role and responsibility of service. This does not mean that they should be expected to serve completely selflessly and without expecting just rewards. But it does mean that that special responsibility must be paramount and must be privileged.
It is not privileged when nurses in public hospitals turn patients away and when nurses who are working are dragged out by their striking colleagues and prevented from saving lives.
Perhaps these incidents should not surprise us, however. We live in a society where human life and well-being has been considerably cheapened. When a person can be killed for a cellphone, should we be surprised that people are refused treatment by others who want increased salaries? Or that principals get sjamboked in their schools because they insist on keeping these schools open for learners who want to attend?
Additionally, South African society is increasingly becoming materialistic and individualistic. Again, is it any wonder that some workers would adopt as violent an attitude as in the examples above, when they regularly see evidence of people that they worked and grew up with suddenly join the ranks of millionaires and billionaires, when those who used to be leaders of their trade unions have become – overnight – directors of corporations and driving flashy cars and living in the most upmarket suburbs? Why, workers would wonder, should they not share in this new-found wealth of our nation.
Indeed, the concern only for the self – and its concomitant lack of any concern for other people – is at the heart of much of the violent crime in South Africa. And I am not sure that we can expect that to change for as long as our society bases its understanding of progress on a capitalist notion of wealth and individual advancement without acknowledging the need to address the very critical basic needs of the vast majority of our people.
Workers, and the working class more generally, have an important role to play in this, in stressing working class solidarity – as we have seen with sympathy strikes in the past weeks – and in stressing human solidarity. The lack of solidarity gives rise to a lack of care and to unconcern about the well-being of people that we are responsible for and, even, an unconcern about whether they live or die.