Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Nursing and Teaching Strike in SA

We call them sisters. A very soothing title for a profession made up of a handsome number of women. Nurses all over the world – and particularly in South Africa where hospitals are under-staffed – work long, difficult hours, yet they are underpaid. The government and many people think nurses’ rewards should lie in being of service to others. At the same time, teachers enjoy their jobs because they took an oath to empower our children and even some grown-ups too. Their working conditions are terrible and most of them do not have offices. They do most of their administrative jobs from their homes; houses that are often in a terrible condition. But the government and many non-teachers think they do not have the right to decent salaries and housing allowances.

During the recent public service strike in South Africa, newspaper images and television screens were filled with images of groups of women toyi-toying in response to the government’s refusal to an 8% salary increase. These groups comprised teachers and nurses, alongside their public sector colleagues. The public has responded with disappointment and anger, especially where demonstrations have turned violent and because schooling and medical services have been disrupted. Because to them, teachers and nurses are lucky to have jobs and they knew what they were letting themselves in for when choosing the profession.

I do not write to condone violence nor the disruption of classes and the treatment of patients and non-strikers. I will never do that because the strikers have civil rights. What they do not seem to remember though is that while it is everyone’s democratic right to strike, it is also everyone’s democratic right to decide not to strike. As such, it becomes unacceptable to threaten or intimidate people who make either decision.

Let us assume that teachers are in this profession because of their call to educate the nation while nurses are angels of mercy. It is assumed that women are by nature educators and nurturers because amongst other things, they often come to the aid of those in need for nothing in return. When teachers and nurses go on strike, it seems to touch a raw nerve in our country’s consciousness because it is similar to a mother who goes on strike, and refuses to nurture the family or do any housework until she gets some recognition for it. When people protest to violent acts by women, it is because the picture painted in our minds seems like that of mothers who abandon their homes and children to go to war. Images of violent women during strikes evoke horror sights.

Teachers’ unions, nurses’ unions and COSATU have all been very vocal in stating that compassion does not pay the bills at the end of every month. In fact one striker stated on television news that they (educators) are the ones who make the directors and ministers of government who they are. I guess on the other side of the coin, nurses put forward a similar argument. Teachers and nurses are expected to give everything, and get very little in return for it. Loyalty and care is a two-way street, isn’t it? The government should be able to give what it expects to take.

Is it right for me to ask why the demand of these teachers and nurses has to be so irrelevant that the strike has to result to violence? Looking at the gender composition of these two professions and of the service profession in general, I am tempted to state that its employees find themselves at the very bottom of the public service pay scale because about 80% of the teachers in this country are women. The figure for nurses is possibly higher. In my opinion, these women should be paid more for working in the frontlines of education and social care, for dealing with children’s emotional and social challenges, for being the parents to our children during the day, for touching blood, bedpans, dying patients and for being in the front lines of overworked and stressed principals, head teachers, doctors, midwives and other specialists.

I am not for a moment denying that you find lazy, inefficient and disinterested teachers and nurses who are insufficiently trained and have bad attitudes, just like in every single profession. In fact the point I make in this article is that the responsibility for caring for patients in state schools and hospitals is that of the government. That the government has to create the kind of scenario in which teachers and nurses have the right to office space, equipment, expertise, support, financial encouragement, and other working conditions in order to do their jobs. Otherwise, the government will be failing both the teachers, nurses and the citizens. People now blame the teachers and nurses whose frustration has reached boiling point. This, in my view, is blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator.
Thank you
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