Left behind in the trenches

The elderly woman looked swanky in a brown tweed skirt, navy jacket and black fur hat.

It was, however, her tan shoes that gave her away. She is a nurse.

Powerful as they are, newspapers and radio can only capture in written text and audio what television graphically feeds the eye.

One picture is worth ten thousand words, writes Frederick R Barnard in Printer's Ink.

The wage strike by public service workers is in its second week now.

Only the other day television images showed police sjambokking and tear-gassing demonstrators who were blockading the entrance to a KwaZulu-Natal hospital.

That scene was hauntingly reminiscent of apartheid's horrors. Arguably the police were obliged, by law, to act. But this time against their comrades.

Images of women, many old enough to be someone's grandmother, trampling on each other as they scuttled to safety, leapt from television screens into living rooms across the country.

Why should these elderly women - and men - among the strikers be marching until they run out of breath, declaring "12percent or nothing"?

They have been working for the government for as long as they can remember. Like the nurse from Mdantsane, Eastern Cape, whose daughter says her mother has been a public servant for 40 years but has little to show for it.

In Johannesburg last Friday the workers marched - traversing the city from the central business district into northern suburbia.

They waved placards and chanted slogans, some really brutal and insulting to Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi.

The visuals have been ever so ugly. Tired but determined, the elderly women rested and sat on pavements only to rejoin the march as it continued.

Significantly, though, this strike is hitting where it hurts most. It has pitted comrades - those in the government and those that voted them into power - against each other.

"In 1976 we threw stones at the system. Geraldine was there when we fled into exile," said a striking Gauteng government employee. "She knows that our demands are legitimate."

Fighting back tears, the woman said: "We were in the trenches with her. She knows that public servants earn too little."

Clearly, the government is at sixes and sevens. Cosatu is the ANC's ally, as is the SACP. So why should there be such strife among kith and kin? Does it say that indeed marriages of convenience do not always work?

Unfortunately, Fraser-Moleketi finds herself in the middle of this dilemma.

Many now think she is no longer a comrade.

Said the Gauteng government worker: "It is so sad that the same people who were in the struggle 20 years ago are still fighting for better wages while their counterparts in power award themselves huge salaries and big bonuses."

The majority, if not all, of the striking public sector workers are black, as in not white.

It is the case always.

This industrial action should not be happening, not now, not ever. Workers in this sector should earn better.

And it is a shame, it is scandalous to allow the public humiliation of people who are also respectable members of society, as witnessed unfolding on prime time television, to continue.

Women, especially, are the pillars of society. Many of those on strike should be looking forward to returning home to their children's children at day's end, not to an uncertain future.