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When undisciplined strikers trample on the rights of others in pursuit of their demands, their actions do not deserve the support or sympathy of society, argues Eric Naki

By unknown | Sep 03, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

The conduct of certain sectors of our society is sickening because they are fast turning our country into a banana republic, where anarchy rules.

The conduct of certain sectors of our society is sickening because they are fast turning our country into a banana republic, where anarchy rules.

What is this thing with workers who embark on a strike to demand salary increases and better working conditions, but would force the whole country to be on strike to support their action, or would even take lives to enforce solidarity for their action?

The recent public service strike and the industrial action by security guards before it are cases in point.

Between June and July, the country was held to ransom for at least five weeks when public service unions joined forces to demand an almost impossible wage hike of 12percent from the government. The employer was initially offering a 7percent increase.

We held our breath hoping for God's mercy as our children were intimidated by striking teachers on their way to school and as non-striking ones were being assaulted and kicked out of the school premises by their striking colleagues.

In some KwaZulu-Natal hospitals, nurses willingly abandoned patients in intensive care units, leaving them to die. Some on the north coast even took medicines from storage and hid them so that private nurses could not treat patients.

Private hospital nurses and emergency workers were so intimidated that they could not even attend to the abandoned patients in public hospitals.

Last year trains were turned into death coaches when members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) embarked on the bloodiest industrial action ever seen in this country.

Innocent commuters were caught in the crossfire as security guards bayed for the blood of other guards, who exercised their right not to strike.

Travelling by train became suicide missions as strikers threw non-strikers from speeding coaches.

The barbaric killing of non-striking bus drivers on the West Rand during the recent Johannesburg metro bus strike signalled the escalation of anarchy in the country's workplaces.

The action in all these instances were illegal, but little action was taken by the police or state to deal with the culprits. A few arrests, some releases and then quiet.

Yet lives were lost as a result of action by members of organised labour. We are still waiting to hear how far the investigations are into the train deaths during the security industry strike a year ago.

What action is being taken to punish the nurses who abandoned people with life-threatening illnesses?

Is a teacher who embarks on a strike and abandons children for more than a month really proud of her actions?

Where is the conscience of the nurse who leaves her patient to die in hospital simply because she had to join a strike?

During the apartheid era, the state instigated what it liked to call "black-on-black violence", using security forces as part of its dirty tricks campaign to counter resistance to apartheid.

In the process a number of young activists were given booby-trapped grenades that would blow up in their hands.

Others were detained overnight prior to township rallies, only to be released outside the rally venue so that it looked as if they were collaborators and so be set up for attacks by their comrades. Hostel dwellers were armed by the regime and trucked to the townships at night to attack innocent unarmed residents.

The askaris, the necklaces, Boipatong and Bhisho massacres of 1992, the killings of headmen, councillors and impimpi and many more incidents were about blacks fighting blacks. It was about the state frustrating the liberation struggle and people taking vengeance on each other.

But where does this latest black-on-black violence come from now? Is it a fight against apartheid? No. Is it a struggle for freedom? No. We defeated apartheid. We achieved our freedom. We have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights protecting the rights of everybody.

So why kill one another or prevent others from exercising their freedoms and rights?

When workers are united under the collective umbrella of a union they are organised. Their leaders are supposed to know the constitutional rights of other citizens. They should know, better than most, that others have the right to go about their daily business without fear of intimidation or being deprived of what they deserve.

These leaders are supposed to guide their followers in doing the right thing by educating them to respect other people's rights. In a democracy people have the choice of whether to strike or not, but they should never be prevented from doing what they want to do.

Last week a seminar, organised by the SA Human Rights Commission, dealt at length with this issue focusing on the rights of striking workers versus the rights of access to education and healthcare.

The seminar emphasised that the right to strike is to convey a message of dissatisfaction to the employer. However, this right should never override the right to education and health care.

"Preventing people from having access to hospitals would, in my opinion, be constitutionally offensive conduct," said Karthy Govender, SAHRC commissioner.

Jody Kollapen told Sowetan there was a strong view that the conduct of strikers during the public service action was illegal and unacceptable.

There was also general agreement that health care was an essential service and strikes should not happen.

The seminar agreed there was a need for the signing of minimum service level agreements allowing a limited strike by essential service employees and for outlining common responsibility by the government and the unions during a strike.

If ever unions buy into the service level agreement idea for health workers, and unions take responsibility for their action - and act against their misbehaving members as discussed at the SAHRC seminar - then the dignity of the right to strike versus the right to education and health care would soon be restored. Along with the right to choose.


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