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Khaya Sibeko

Football.Bookworm.Cinematic Music. "The greatest contribution from Africans will be to give the world a more human face" Bantu S. Biko,

Public Servant Strikes: Are They A Necessary Pyrrhic?

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South Africa is a very interesting country in many ways, how many countries can claim to actually have a strike ‘season’? The strike ‘season’ is in a way an open season as far as industrial action is concerned. Since the President Jacob Zuma administration took office in May last year, there have been numerous strikes even the taxi industry – who aren’t in the employ of the government – decided to strike (read march) against government but funny enough taxi drivers seldom strike against their employers. The most recent and certainly pernicious industrial action is the one involving public servants, who, it must be said, are a vital cog in the machinery of service delivery. According to the Public Servants Association and Congress of South African Trade Unions, their respective members demand 8, 6 percent in their salary increment and a R1000 housing subsidy while the ministry of public service is offering 7 percent salary increase and a R700 subsidy.

Although all departments have all been adversely affected by the industrial action, the most critical, if not of grave concern, has to be the lack of administration in the health and education sector. Thankfully doctors, nurses and the police are defined as “essential workers” by the labour laws and therefore are barred from striking but last year we witnessed doctors abandon their Hippocratic oath and pursuit of favourable working conditions. South Africa as a developing country has the majority of its population heavily reliant on State assistance for basic amenities such as health care and more importantly education. That in itself indicative of how necessary it is that effective and efficient learning continue to take place with little disruption and the teachers realize just how critical a part of national development their are and as such have to be salaried in a fashion that reflective of that.

For many years being employed as a public servant was said to be a ‘calling’, particularly the teaching profession. As such the employees were/are expected to bite the bullet and be ‘happy’ with whatever they were being paid, however meagre it was or is. On talk radio stations such as 702 and SAFM and opinions section of newspapers, people have been calling in and writing respectively of their ‘shock’ at how teachers can just abandon their ‘moral’ duties in pursuit of money. We seldom put ourselves in the shoes of teachers and health care workers who have to work under appalling conditions with little basic resources being made available because such high ranking bureaucrat ‘forgot’ to pay suppliers their due money in order to textbooks , stationery and various necessities to be delivered on time.

There seems to be an expectation that public servants especially in the health and education sector possess superhuman abilities and that they don’t tire like everyone does simply because theirs is supposedly a ‘calling’. I doubt that the ‘calling’ argument holds water when banking institutions repossess their property because of months of non adequate payments of mortgages and other expenses. The tax deducted from their salaries aren’t any less because theirs is a ‘calling’. So the ‘calling’ argument ought to cease because it’s pathetic and condescending. Politicians are quick to invoke the fires of patriotism when they have to compliment their rhetoric of quality public education and health care to those who needed it most.

And part and parcel of producing that elusive quality centred public education and health care systems lies in ensuring that your the delivers of the desired result are adequately paid and by so doing the State would be able to retain the skills of that work force. The millions of rands that were spent on new vehicles by the Zuma administrations were astronomical and departments upped the ante by splashing on world cup tickets. The media’s darling politician and the golden child of the neo liberal agenda, Trevor Manuel said that there was nothing untoward with world cup tickets expenditure particularly by State Owned Enterprises, who not so long ago were receiving bailouts. But when others employees request justified increases we are told that the national purse can’t afford such exorbitant figures.

We may be as vociferous as vuvuzelas in our criticism of public servants for using school children as bargaining chips in their quest for better salaries but what do we expect them to do, strike during school holidays? That would in all probability be self defeating. Any ‘moral’ duty in public service must be epitomized by elected officials first and the lack of belief by many politicians in the public service is attested to by the fact that their children attend private schools and go to private health care facilities in times of illness. Of those who rely on public service for education and health the majority are African black and coloured folk. One would even be tempted to say that the governing party’s deeds are lugubrious at the very least as far as giving those particular groups of the country’s society a chance at a meaningful ‘better life for all’.

If billions worth of world cup stadiums can be built within a four year period why, then, can’t houses and health care centres be built with the same diligence? The ANC led government has proved that they can deliver when they want.  As South Africa loses its verdant democratic image, the electorate will have to awake from the hypnosis of voting into public offices parties solely based on pre 1994 Struggle credentials because a new struggle of classism is entrenching itself. Children who attend St Mary’s, Parktown Schools and other prestigious private schooling will in all probability ace their grade 12 examinations while their working class counter parts will have to play catch up and work even harder in order to stand a chance of university entrance and should the working class child fail to make the grade, s/he will have to make do with odd temporary employment. Such are the effects of public servants downing their tools. It’s the most needy of the population who suffer. So, tell me if the eventual victory of the public servants is a pyrrhic or not.

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