Reasons behind the public servants strike

Posted: October 21, 2010 in News
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By Yandiswa Vokwana

Nelly Njokweni* is a teacher in a small rural school in Keiskammahoek, just outside King Williams Town. She is a mother of three, her husband passed away last year due to cancer and now she is left to look after her family. Her gross income is R9000, her net income at times totals up to R7500. Not only is life for her difficult on the home front, but even at work she has many issues to deal with.

To begin with, the school she works at has little infrastructure. She has to teach a class of 50 students because of the lack of teachers. Her students have to attend classes sitting on stones and writing on their laps, because of the shortage of chairs and desks. Nelly is a SADTU (South African Democratic Teachers’ Union) member, and in August this year she was one of the public servants who went on strike for an 8.6% salary increase and other benefits. “I was one of the people who witnessed what South Africa is capable of, how much money was raised and how efficiently South Africa’s infrastructure was prepared. My question is why the government cannot do more, faster and better, when it comes to service delivery, economic development and social justice,” says Nelly.

Almost every news segment runs stories of how those in need of medical attention are turned away, how pupils are left in limbo on the eve of the matric exams and how bodies have been piling up in state mortuaries, causing unnecessary pain and suffering to the bereaved. Many workers have to care for extended families, due to the failure of the state job creation strategy and implementation of a comprehensive social security programme. This fact is seldom mentioned by the media and government.

August 2010 once again saw public servants hitting the streets after they decided to stop the strike just before the beginning of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The demands were and still are that of a salary increase of 8.6%, housing allowance of R1000, night shift allowance, medical subsidy and recognition of academic qualifications. All these demands are still the same demands that caused the public sector strike in 2007.

Another issue that has not been addressed since 2007 is that of synchronisation of the bargaining council and budgetary process with the aim to establish April 1as the adjustment date. According to Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU secretary-general, very few people entertained the reasons behind government’s 16 year reluctance to sign a minimum service level agreement so as to allow workers falling outside the scope of essential services to embark on strike action. The government has been absolved of the blame for failing the poor and opportunistically using essential services as an instrument to suppress workers’ rights.

There are many untold stories of the difficulties faced by public servants at the hands of a system governed by profit. The public should be made aware that the conditions of work for many public servants are intertwined with the wellbeing of the people they serve. The conditions under which education takes place in many townships and rural schools replicates the working environment for many teachers. Similarly, the dream of providing quality healthcare for all will never be realised, as long as nurses have to undertake their tasks within the context of staff shortages, lack of medicines and infrastructure in many of our public hospitals. Many public servants are reeling under the pressures of capitalism.

A teacher who earns about R9000 a month simply cannot afford a decent house. We should not be surprised when many public servants drown in debt and struggle to keep their families afloat. This is a gross crime committed by the government against public servants and society at large. With the increasing cost of living and the lack of cushioning mechanisms such as state-subsidised housing for public servants, we can safely say that many of our teachers and nurses today constitute what has been called the working poor.

The public sector strike has clearly unmasked the real and ugly face of income inequalities and poverty in South Africa. The fact that a top chief executive earns 1,728 times more than an average worker is proof of these gross inequalities. Four years ago, the lowest-paid worker in the public sector earned R35,000 a year, while a director general took home an excess of R800,000 a year. This reality is worsening as wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few who have tasted the real fruits of democracy. These facts ought to be remembered by those who comfortably launch scathing attacks on working class struggles from their library armchairs. Hopefully the resilience and overall discipline that has been demonstrated by the majority of the workers during the strike will be re-channelled towards mass campaigns in the National Health Insurance and a new, job-creating and equitable growth path.

*Pseudonym

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