South African nurses suspend strike

Issue 

By Norm Dixon

Nurses from five major hospitals and 14 clinics in and around Johannesburg have agreed to suspend their militant strike action. Nurses at Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital — South Africa's largest — led a walkout on September 4 that soon involved four other major hospitals and 14 clinics throughout Gauteng province. The nurses are demanding wage increases of between 25 and 30%. Strike action spread to some hospitals and clinics in Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pretoria.

Gauteng Premier Tokyo Sexwale, supported by President Nelson Mandela, issued an ultimatum that nurses return to work by 3pm on September 8 or be sacked. Nurses ignored the order, and Gauteng government officials began issuing 3000 dismissal notices as soon as the deadline passed.

Sexwale and Gauteng health minister Amos Masondo reiterated that they would not give in to the nurses "insensitive" strike action. Masondo pointed out that the nurses' unions had accepted a 5% increase earlier in the year.

The nurses, unhappy with the increase, by-passed their unions and organised themselves in Nurses' Crisis Committees (NCC). Jabu Moleketi, Gauteng finance minister and a member of the South African Communist Party, told the Johannesburg Star: "We want to send a message that wildcat strikes are not allowed. If we give in here, then KwaZulu/Natal or the Western Cape are next. We are stopping the domino here."

Very late on September 8, NCC leaders agreed to return to work until September 18. The nurses' grievances would be discussed at a national consultative forum of health workers on that date. But NCC leaders warned that the strike would resume if progress was not made.

The health minister in the South African government, Dr Nkosazana Zuma, continues to insist that the government does not have the funds to pay salary increases this year.

Meanwhile, 50,000 local government workers went on strike on September 18 for more pay. The strike involves workers in Gauteng, Northern Province and Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces. Gauteng officials branded the workers' action "illegal" and threatened disciplinary measures.

The workers, who are members of the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU), are demanding a minimum monthly living wage of R1500 (A$530). In Alberton, east of Johannesburg, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at striking workers, injuring several.