The events at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital on Thursday have not won the workers who protested any sympathy.
One of Johannesburg’s most important hospitals became a target of havoc and destruction. South Africans have largely vilified the protesters, while the department of health, whose alleged inability to deliver on promises regarding bonuses led to the madness, has received a free pass.
I will preempt any criticism that this column is condoning the truly terrible situation at the hospital yesterday by being clear that this is not the case – like most South Africans I was shocked by reports of harassment of patients and doctors, the kicking down of a pharmacy door, vandalism not only in the hospital halls, but in theatre, and the barring of the gate so that new patients could not get in.
But it is important to realise that the behaviour of the workers reflects very real desperation and frustration regarding how they are treated by their government employers.
Next week as our short attention span shifts to the next story, and after Nehawu declares the protest over, these workers will go back to their jobs and perform their duties anonymously and even invisibly. It’s a sad reality that their grievances have only made it into public discourse because of the awful destruction caused yesterday.
Does this mean that the destruction is OK? No.
Should the right of those who need medical treatment be violated so that workers can resolve these kind of issues? No.
But is what happened the fault of the workers alone? I would argue that it certainly is not.
The department of health has allegedly failed to deliver on promises regarding performance bonuses that date back to 2016. If already lowly paid workers, many of whom live in poverty, are promised bonuses that would come as a huge financial relief to them, it is the responsibility of the department to prevent this mess and deliver on whatever promises they have made before this kind of horrific situation takes place.
Our inability to hold the department to account means that they can follow the narrative that this is simply an issue of baseless criminality and vandalism without having to fix the problems that have led to these protests getting out of control.
It is not insignificant that the bedlam at Charlotte Maxeke took place on the same week that a landmark bill guaranteeing South African workers a minimum wage was passed.
Parties such as the DA and IFP slammed the bill, saying it would lead to unemployment and our economy taking a knock. It is common for those whose interests usually lie in protecting big business to act like their views are informed by a concern for the poor. After all, if a minimum wage will lead to job losses, surely this will worsen our country’s already rampant poverty.
These views inevitably come from people who are not living in poverty, and who have not bothered to ask workers what they want. Really, they are worried about what effect being forced to pay employees a fair, decent living wage will have on the bottom line.
Just as not holding the department of education accountable, in part, for the mess at Charlotte Maxeke frees them of their role in fixing it, this view enables business owners not to have to pay workers the kind of wages that would raise their lives above the breadline.
When workers are prepared to take nothing over the low salaries they earn it’s a sign of very real desperation. While economists will worry about the economy as a whole, these workers feel so excluded from it that they are willing to risk earning no money at all so that they can fight to gain remuneration that would enable them to live with dignity and that would show respect for how important the services they provide are.
And when workers are prepared to riot and destroy even a hospital, those who are responsible for their grievances cannot be allowed to act like they alone are the victims here.