Emergency Debate
on the National Public Service Workers' Strike
By Dr BT Buthelezi MPL

 

Kwazulu-Natal Legislature Pietermaritzburg: 24 August 2010 

 

Honourable Speaker:

 

We are two weeks into a public service workers' strike that has clearly become make or break in the history of labour relations. We are facing a watershed moment when the time has come to re-examine the limits, renegotiate the process and reconsider where the right to strike collides with the rights to life and security.

 

Our constitution, as liberal and permissive as it is in principle, recognises that there are instances where rights must be curtailed. The devastation, both material and moral, left in the wake of the current public sector strike suggests that labour relations may well involve constitutional rights that should be regulated.

 

The rationale behind this public sector strike is complex. One needs to question why public service unions' demands are more than twice the rate of inflation. Government and economists say that workers in the public sector earn more than those in the private sector, where businesses can go bankrupt and jobs can be lost. But it is also conventional wisdom that teachers at private schools earn more than those at government funded schools.

 

At the same time, we should not ignore the effect of the raised expectations of our people in the aftermath of the World Cup. Having witnessed what we are capable of when we really want to; how much money we could raise and how efficiently we prepared South Africa's infrastructure, those who are striking today are clearly asking why we cannot do more, faster and better, when it comes to service delivery, economic development and social justice.

 

The strikers are asking why the government cannot pay the R1000 housing allowance their unions are demanding when we spent billions of rands on venues for soccer games. The strikers are asking why can we not place the same value on the people who are educating our children and healing our sick as we placed on the readiness for the World Cup. Can we answer them honestly and convincingly? 

 

When we tackle the consequences of this strike, we must not forget to address the underlying causes, but, given the extent of the loss and damage caused by the current strike, that debate is for another day. The striking public servants have created more pressing problems than the underlying causes of their strike.

 

We are gathered here today to debate how this government as a collective and particularly the MECs responsible for Education and Health intend to deal with the South African Democratic Teachers Union and other unions that have embarked on a campaign of intransigence and disregard for our citizens, not least those who directly rely on the services provided by members of these unions in the civil service.

 

We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the disruptive behaviour of these unions and their members who are flagrantly ignoring appeals made by the Premier and his fellow MECs to all strikers to conduct themselves in a responsible, disciplined and law-abiding manner during the current strike.

 

What we see on television and indeed in our constituencies and neighbourhoods are mobs wearing SADTU and other unions' shirts, armed with banners displaying threats and creating havoc at institutions that have little to do with the public sector.

 

In doing so, they are bullying their colleagues who opted to stay out of the strike. They are inconveniencing everyone around them. They are threatening the fragile economic recovery following the recent recession. And those among them who are entrusted with our children, such as teachers, are decidedly setting a bad example to follow.

 

We in the Official Opposition have consistently called on this government to put its foot down with SADTU and other public sector unions. So far, our appeals have been disregarded and unfortunately the price of that inaction is now being paid by our children in schools, patients in hospitals and the public at large. The sick are being deprived of their constitutional right to medical care as much as our learners are being deprived of their constitutional right to an education.

 

Today we expect nothing less than that the Premier and the relevant MECs explain to this House precisely what action they are going to take to prevent such behaviour from SADTU and other union members both in the immediate and distant future. We can no longer afford to deal with each new crisis only when it erupts and hits us with full force like this very strike.

 

Our immediate concern is that the government must reclassify many of the ancillary services in hospitals, particularly those that ensure that hospitals remain open and functional, as well as teaching as an essential service to prevent the current crisis from reoccurring again in the future.

 

Many speakers in this debate have made the point that today millions of learners are without teachers in their classrooms and millions of patients who require medical care are deprived of it. Unions are holding our citizens' right to health and education to ransom in a calculated move intended to have maximum negative impact in order to demonstrate their power. 

 

While our medical facilities function on an ongoing emergency basis, our schools are particularly vulnerable at this time for two reasons. The first has to do with the upcoming matric examinations and the second with the unusually long holiday of five weeks to accommodate the World Cup when all virtually teaching came to a standstill.

 

These factors should compel the government to make ancillary medical services and teaching essential services without any further delay. The Premier and the MECs should collectively hold President JG Zuma to his commitment to making health and education two of the central priorities of his government.

 

I thank you.

 

Contact: Dr BT Buthelezi MPL, 082 516 0156