8 March 2023
“You have shown the power of the people by closing all the hospitals,” National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) Western Cape provincial secretary Baxolise Mali told striking union members on Wednesday. “The employer says people are dying. It is not our responsibility to keep people’s lives.”
Mali was speaking to strikers outside the Khayelitsha District Hospital in Cape Town, as NEHAWU members continued a wage strike which has disrupted hospitals and government offices across the country. The government considers the wage negotiations for 2022 to be settled but NEHAWU and several other unions are still demanding up to 12%.
Police presence outside the hospital had kept protesters away, said hospital CEO David Binza. He said the situation was “better than yesterday”, when “things were bad”.
Binza said services at the hospital had been severely affected by the strike on Monday.
Protesters had prevented people coming in and out of the hospital. Staff had ended up working 24 hours because there were not enough nurses to relieve them, and there was a shortage of nurses in childbirth wards. “Yesterday they prevented night staff from gaining access into the facility. It was mostly doctors that they allowed in. Doctors alone can’t work properly,” he said.
Today things had been better, he said, as the police had arrived early and kept protesters away from the hospital.
Western Cape health spokesperson Mark van der Heever said shift changes at the hospital were being closely monitored after patients in critical condition had to be transferred to other hospitals such as Helderberg, Tygerberg, Mitchells Plain and Karl Bremer.
“On Tuesday night, 7 March, protesters disrupted services and blocked staff from entering Khayelitsha District Hospital until 11pm. The ongoing disruption has directly resulted in staff shortages as they are prevented from entering, backlogs building up and other operational challenges.”
He said protests had been reported at Karl Bremer and Tygerberg hospitals, but services had not been disrupted.
Mali said NEHAWU’s intention was to “collapse the provision of government services” to force the government to the negotiating table. “Our tactics involve closing workplaces, to force workers to get out and switch off their computers.”
Home Affairs offices in Khayelitsha were closed. Disappointed, Luthando Tiso said he has been going to Khayelitsha Home Affairs to collect his ID since Monday. “I can’t get a job without an ID,” he said.
In the city centre, the Home Affairs office in Barrack Street and the offices of the Department of Labour were closed and there was a strong police presence.
One man said he had been to the Mitchells Plain Labour Department offices on Monday and Tuesday only to find them closed because of the strike, and had come to Cape Town hoping for help. “I desperately need to claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund. I lost my job in January. My rent and children’s school fees are already behind,” he said.
In the Eastern Cape, Department of Health spokesperson Yonela Dekeda said hospitals were being run by skeleton staff.
“We had an incident early in the morning where striking workers blocked the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital’s entrance in East London. But police were called to remove them.”
Dekeda said unions which were not supporting the strike action had raised concerns that their members were being intimidated and denied access to workplaces.
“We do appreciate responsible shop stewards who have called their members to order, where necessary, and ensured that critical services continue and that our patients receive necessary care,” she said. “However, we take very seriously those employees who intimidate others, and cause services to be affected negatively.
“Appropriate action will be taken in all such instances, and law enforcement agencies are being deployed.”
At Laetitia Bam Day Hospital in KwaNobuhle, Kariega, Eastern Cape deputy secretary of NEHAWU, Busiswa Stokwe told about 100 striking workers: “We know we will be attacked even in the community, accused of not caring for patients. But the same community when you are doing the work of ten people, whilst you are four, would insult you, saying you are lazy. We must put ourselves first.”
A patient who did not want to give his name said he had arrived at 5am to have three teeth removed but had been ordered out by striking workers at 7am. “They came by car and on foot and sang in the corridors. We realized that we should go back home, with aching teeth.”
“We were about ten and have no money to remove teeth at a private doctor, who charges R350 per tooth,” he said.
In Tshwane, striking workers closed down the offices of the Department of Public Service and Administration, shouting and insulting some workers who were inside the offices.
There was a stand-off between the striking workers and police, as the workers closed off Hamilton and Edmond Streets with huge stones and turned cars away. Police moved the workers away.
Phumuzo Malahleni, a registry clerk at the Department of Agriculture, said his R12,000-a-month salary was too low to cope with the soaring cost of living. “As public servants we can’t afford anything. Violence and going to the streets is the only language our government understands.”
NEHAWU Gauteng provincial chairperson Mzikayise Tshontshi told GroundUp that the battle for a wage increase was far from over.
He said NEHAWU had been called to the Public Sector Bargaining Council on Thursday. “Our negotiators will be there, but the rest of us will continue shutting down public services.
“We believe our strike has been resoundingly successful. From Monday to today, the numbers have been growing. Tomorrow we want to intensify the strike,” said Tshontshi.
Addressing the crowd outside the department, Tshontshi called out those who were still at work.
“We are also aware of ‘amagundwane’ (rats). Some are sitting in cosy offices, and then when we win this battle they are going to be first in the queue because they think they deserve what we have fought for. There have always been traitors in every struggle; this is no different.”
At Tembisa hospital, striking workers blocked the entrance with burning tyres and debris while chanting slogans. Calm was later restored.
Free State health spokesperson Mondli Mvambi said the province had obtained an interdict on Wednesday morning to prevent strikers from disrupting services at hospitals and clinics. “The order does not stop the strike but stops acts of intimidation, violence, disruptions and instigating.”
Mvambi said hospitals hardest hit were National District Hospital, Universitas, Pelonomi and Medical Depot in Bloemfontein. “There were no nurses at work and patient care was seriously compromised.” Mvambi said calm had been restored but services remained strained as nurses were still not at work.
“At Manapo in QwaQwa they are not allowing nurses into the hospital. At Boitumelo in Kroonstad, picketers were singing at the gate but services are said to be continuing. At Pelonomi Hospital, nurses in ICU were forced out by the strikers.”
In the North West, services at least six hospitals were disrupted by the strike: Klerksdorp-Tshepong, Potchefstroom, Taung District, Moses Kotane, Ganyesa District, and Gelukspan. There were pickets outside several other clinics and hospitals.
In Mpumalanga, spokesperson Christopher Nobela said that all health facilities had been affected and hospitals were working with skeleton staff in hospitals.
Limpopo health spokesperson Neil Shikwambana said, “We do not have reports of disruptions in any of our facilities so far.”
Workers stopped work at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in Durban for several hours on Wednesday morning, singing outside the hospital. Patients were allowed to enter.
NEHAWU branch secretary Sikhumbuzo Gumbi said workers decided to go back to work at midday so they could assist patients. “As workers we decided to protest in the morning then attend to patients around lunchtime.”
Gumbi said the staff would continue protesting in the mornings until the strike ends.
Prince Mthalane, Durban NEHAWU regional secretary, said clinics had been closed in KwaMashu and at Polyclinic workers had burned tyres. Police had been called but workers had talked to them and no-one had been arrested.
“The aim is to have a peaceful strike,” he said.
GroundUp was unable to reach the health department spokespersons in KwaZulu-Natal or the Northern Cape.
“Innocent patients have been caught in the crossfire and inconvenienced by something which has nothing to do with them,” said Department of Health national spokesperson Foster Mohale. He said the Minister of Health had asked the Minister of Police to strengthen the police presence in areas affected by the strike.
“Skeleton staff has also been available to give care to patients who could not be discharged,” said Mohale.
South African Police Union spokesperson Lesiba Thobakgale said the union had joined NEHAWU in the protest. “As SAPU, from today we have served a strike notice and we are joining the other unions,” said Thobakgale.