How protests have transformed since the dawn of democracy

Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital was recently vandalised asworkers engaged in a picket because they had a dispute with management. /KABELO MOKOENA
Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital was recently vandalised asworkers engaged in a picket because they had a dispute with management. /KABELO MOKOENA

During the heydays of the Struggle against racist oppression, many boycotts and stay-aways were called.

Comrades would barricade roads to "persuade" people to stay in the townships and villages, but nurses, doctors and other health workers would be waved through to proceed to their work stations. Where necessary, they would be escorted to work to ensure their safety.

This was done because even as we confronted the brutal racist regime, we recognised the importance for sick and vulnerable members of society to receive medical care.

It comes as a shock that these days health workers would go on strike and go as far as to prevent care for patients in hospitals and clinics.

We read horrible and heart-wrenching stories about mothers carrying their seriously ill babies from one health-care facility to another, only to be turned away by nurses who claim to be on strike for bonuses that were not paid or delayed.

In one case in North West where a strike led by Nehawu is in progress, a mother, after moving from one facility to the other without receiving help for her seriously sick child, finally reached a major hospital that was still open.

She was not given any help by the nurses present and when the baby died in her arms, a nurse callously ordered her to take her dead baby home. We hear stories of nurses who try to do their jobs being chased out of their wards, including those taking care of premature babies.

Our hearts are dead once we lose the basic human instinct to protect and take care of babies. Unionism is about human solidarity and protection against unfair behaviour or actions.

It is incomprehensible to imagine a leadership of a union sitting in a meeting and taking a decision to withdraw care from sick people, including ill or premature babies. This must be unionism gone mad.

Even during wars, there are protocols to protect civilians, the sick and injured soldiers from all sides and health facilities. A strike over labour issues is not even a war. Nobody needs to die because there is a dispute about this or the other matter in the workplace.

We saw the same members of a union orchestrating the trashing of Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital because they have a dispute with the management.

By spilling and scattering medical waste on the grounds of the hospital, the protesting union members endangered the lives of patients, health workers and the public. Surely, this is not what unionism is about.

Remember, we worked very hard during the Struggle for freedom for the right of workers to organise themselves into unions so that they may protect their rights.

It is absolutely imperative that all sectors of society, including workers, should be able to engage, interact and campaign for their rights. That is the only way in which freedom and democracy would have meaning.

But no group should exercise their rights at the expense of others. Above all, we are still human. We cannot exercise whatever rights we demand at the expense of the lives of our babies. By all accounts, the grievances of the health workers sound genuine, but no amount of money or benefits can be ranked above the lives of people.

We should doff our hats for those health workers who, despite intimidation by their colleagues, try their best to save the lives of patients.

We cannot but applaud Dr George Mothupi, a medical specialist who heads the maternity unit at Mahikeng Hospital. With roads barricaded and health workers prevented from going to work, Mothupi was receiving distressed calls from the matron in charge of the maternity unit about women experiencing life- threating birth complications.

Mothupi donned jeans and takkies, left his car at home and walked a considerable distance to the hospital where he spent the day performing Caesarean sections and generally helping women deliver their babies. Society owes Mothupi and his colleagues a debt of gratitude.

 

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