||With the government and unions locked in battle, it is the workers who
are paying the price - even with their lives, writes Annsilla Nyar
Life in South Africa of late is approaching a level of intensity which
puts one in mind of Yeats's grim revelatory lines: "Things fall apart;
the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
We are experiencing shocking levels of crime, as typified by the St
Tropez robbery and shooting in Durban.
The municipal rates hike has followed closely on the heels of the jump
in the interest rate, putting many of us with our financial backs to the
wall. Along with the recent increases in petrol and food costs, and
recurrent protests about a lack of services, crisis-weary South Africans
are now contending with the violence, lawlessness and suffering
unleashed by the public sector strike.
The sense of things falling apart in the country is pervasive for South
Africans. But nothing depicts our near state of "mere anarchy" more
powerfully than the highly contested issue of essential services as it
has predominated as a central motif in the ongoing protest action.
May 28 marked the beginning of one of the most massive strikes in South
African history. Thousands of workers in essential services joined other
public service workers in the strike organised by Cosatu in the effort
to negotiate 12% wage increases and concomitant increases in housing and
But South Africa has paid a bitter price for the loss of workers from
many posts in the essential services sectors.
Although hospitals were planned to run on minimum service levels to
ensure a basic minimum of health care, conditions of "mere anarchy" have
reigned in the area of public health.
Ill or vulnerable people have been denied access to public health
facilities, causing ugly scenes of violence, intimidation, suffering and
death. Many seriously ill patients have been neglected or even summarily
KwaZulu Natal has been one of the hardest hit provinces in terms of the
virtual crippling of public health facilities.
We have witnessed at close hand the chaos in health care as shown by the
near non-functioning of provincial paramedics and ambulance services.
The situation was as serious as to warrant the calling in of private
emergency service personnel.
Several state hospitals, including King Edward VIII close to home,
closed their doors to sick people needing medical care.
We saw critically ill patients and babies in incubators evacuated from
state hospitals. We saw Durban pensioner Rajawanthee Beekhari lose her
life as a result of being denied access to Adddington Hospital.
Public workers have achieved a lot during these past few weeks, but we
have to ask ourselves at what cost these gains in the protest action
have been advanced.
There is no doubt that striking workers deserve the requisite demands
for a living wage and improved working conditions in public service.
They deserve more than 12%, in my opinion. But it cannot be denied that
such demands as advanced by the essential service workers infringe upon
people's most basic and fundamental right-to life. Juxtaposed against
the right of essential service workers to strike is the competing right
of patients to adequate health care. This is what makes the issue of
essential services the weak spot in the protest action.
Consider labour law legislation. According to the Labour Relations Act,
strike action by public servants in essential services is illegal.
Under labour law, essential services are those that society cannot do
without because of the potential of loss of life.
Those that are truly essential - health, fire, police/correctional, air
traffic, sanitation, electrical services - must be available 24 hours a
day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Only life-and-death matters are considered essential. But essential
services have never been properly defined.
It is up to the CCMA to determine whether parts of a service or an
entire service should be designated an essential service. The definition
is fuzzy, allowing for confusion.
This lack of definition constitutes an area of weakness for the protest
action, allowing the state to argue against the strike action on grounds
Therefore, while labour law clearly disallows public servants in
essential services to engage in industrial action, it is also understood
that this clashes strongly with the constitutional right of all workers
According to the law, the grievances of public sector workers in
essential services must be expressed through alternative channels. For
example, each sector of the public service is committed to a minimum
service agreement with the government which allows strike action as long
as minimum service levels are maintained.
Minimum service levels are intended to create the conditions for a
"controlled strike", allowing the right to strike while maintaining
reasonable levels of public service.
This is another weak spot. Few minimum service agreements have been
signed since the introduction of such legislation in the early 1990s.
Talks between trade unions and the government to firm up these
agreements have never been satisfactorily concluded and have
continuously stalled, gained momentum during crisis moments, and then
It is absolutely crucial for the range of essential services to have
been defined as narrowly as possible to ensure as few people are working
as possible. Higher numbers on the streets mean a more prolonged (and
Therefore, as it stands, it is illegal for workers in essential services
to strike and the ensuing battles will have to be fought in court,
making for prolonged and painful protest action.
The crucial negotiations around the issue of essential services needed
to have been concluded and resolved months ago, before strike action
took place. At least then it would place workers in a much stronger
bargaining position than they are right now.
If the legal status of essential service workers had been resolved, it
would have helped prevent the inevitable descent into violence and
lawlessness which necessitated the shutdown of medical services.
There would have been a clearly conceptualised and understood definition
of the range of essential services needed to maintain a bare minimum of
service, preventing chaos, and still engage in protest action from a
position of leverage.
What this oversight has allowed is for the government to take the
defensive, pointing to the inevitable outbreaks of violence and
intimidation, painting workers as unruly and unreliable and, therefore,
making their demands unreasonable.
So where do we go from here? What we have seen thus far is an example of
highly disrespectful labour relations. The state has responded with
arrogance and indifference to public workers. The package they have
placed on the negotiating table is an example of astounding arrogance,
particularly when juxtaposed against the profligacy and waste at state
levels that we are aware of. Dismissals of striking workers are already
at an advanced stage.
On the other hand, trade unions have not shown themselves to be mindful
of the very real and sobering power dynamics of the battle at hand. The
utterances of bravado we often hear from trade union quarters tend to
fly in the face of basic bread- and-butter issues. People have to survive.
The resources which the state can command allow it to conduct itself in
legal battles in ways which workers cannot. The state may well muster up
legal resources to fight strikers on grounds of manslaughter for deaths
that have occurred as a result of the action of health workers.
There are many ways in which thousands of workers will bear the costs,
particularly those with family responsibilities and commitments, who
will not be able to maintain strike action indefinitely without bleeding
and breaking under the economic strain.
For some, the successful outcome of these negotiations will come too
late. Beekhari will quickly become a forgotten statistic, a tiny
footnote in the history of the strike. Thousands of workers will feel
the pain. South Africa is burning, in as much as it ever has and more,
as during apartheid when the country was being declared ungovernable.
The gloom and despair we feel as our old orders disintegrate into
near-collapse around us is aptly echoed by Yeats's vision of historical
change. "Surely some revelation is at hand," he argues.
From which quarters will it come? As both sides are now grimly locked
behind their battle lines, it is difficult to envision viable prospects
for resolution or even change.
Annsilla Nyar is a researcher at the Centre for Civil Society, based
at the University of KwaZulu- Natal.