Nehawu is harming innocent patients

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) protesters have justified the mayhem and violence at public hospitals, in which several black patients died, including a five-year-old child.

Union officials, according to some media reports, recklessly commented that “casualties are a necessary outcome of any struggle”. They claim they are engaged in a war of attrition with the employer on behalf of the workers.

Why are public hospitals targeted as centres from which the national wild-cat strike action is orchestrated, fully knowing the facilities are mostly used by poor black people with no financial resources to use private health amenities, which are beyond their means?

Does the leadership of Nehawu in its conferences or meetings not think about these matters? It would be strange if such thinking were absent in their day-to-day deliberations. Trade unions exist to serve the interests of the working class – their membership is swelled by the marginalised black people, who often earn a pittance in wages.

What logic is there for a trade union to even think of inconveniencing their own, to cause much suffering and pain to those they ought to see as their own?

Has the famous slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all” lost its original appeal and significance and meaning? Is this not supposed to remind us we ought to protect our own from harm’s way? Does this not tell us that to violently invade public hospitals, and cause panic among medical staff and patients, is to contradict the solidarity pledge we make to each other – something that ought to be seen as a badge of honour worn on our sleeves with pride and reverence.

Patients at hospitals are vulnerable. To repeat the obvious, they depend on the skill of doctors, specialists, nurses, and other supporting staff such cleaners, clerks porters, for their well-being and survival. They are admitted to public hospitals because of serious ailments and injuries of all descriptions. A health facility, in the circumstances, is their only place of refuge to help them to recuperate.

Our humanity, even as members of trade unions seeking better and improved wage and better working conditions, as Nehawu does, should not cause us to be detached from what the reality of human experience of distress and trauma might entail – or what the psychology of being confined in a hospital bed might mean, among which would be the preservation of life.

We do not quite have the semantics to adequately describe what sanctity of life might mean, but by instinct, if we are all normal humans, we understand life to be sacrosanct and deserving to be preserved. Billions of rands worldwide are
expended in medical science and technology to develop better methods to improve the quality of life.

When Covid-19 invaded the world between 2019 and 2021, efforts worldwide were devised to find a cure to save lives. This is because life is sacrosanct. No effort is spared to go to the ends of the earth to find a cure to save a life or palliatives to ease pain and human suffering.

Our constitution reminds us that “everyone has the right to life” (section 10 of the Bill of Rights).

Equally significant, section 12(1)(c)states: “Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person to be free from all forms of violence from either or private sources.”

At the Telle Mogoerane Regional Hospital in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, a child died. The reports that have been doing the rounds attribute that death to the mayhem, violence and disruption that ensued at the hospital.

The reports state that patients were left unattended and that staff members who were not on strike feared to be targeted by Nehawu strikers.

These scenes repeated themselves in various parts of our country where Nehawu workers are demanding a living wage. This despite a court order interdicting the strike action.

Patients, it is reported, are turned away from receiving medical attention. This is intolerable. Nehawu is punishing patients unjustifiably. Its action might alienate it from the people it claims to represent. The fight must be taken to the bosses and not patients.


  • Mdhlela is a freelance journalist, an Anglican priest, ex-trade unionist and former publications editor of the SA Human Rights Commission publications

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