subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
EFF leader Julius Malema. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI
EFF leader Julius Malema. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI

Just a month away from the annual investment conference — President Cyril Ramaphosa’s bid to recruit R2-trillion in foreign direct investment — the country is engulfed in annual, avoidable, violent protests over pay and access to higher education. Regrettably, leadership has been universally missing.

For more than a week now, members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), which represents public servants allied to the ANC, have been on the streets instead of their offices and health facilities, demanding government fulfils last year’s promised raises.

As with many protest actions in our country, violence and destruction of property have accompanied these marches and demonstrations. Fortunately, no-one has yet died due to law-enforcement actions.

Unfortunately, however, both anecdotal evidence and accounts by health minister Joe Phaahla suggest that lives of innocent patients have been lost and more endangered due to the Nehawu strike action. Reports abound of staff being forced out of ICU theatres, leaving patients unattended. This has been roundly condemned, including by Ramaphosa.

A week ago, students at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) took to the streets too, protesting against exclusion of their peers over legacy debt, including failure to pay for admissions in this academic year.

As with the Nehawu strike, the student protest turned violent and resulted in running skirmishes with security forces.

Grassroots demonstrations

More concerning, next Monday, Julius Malema’s EFF has asked South Africans to join what they call a “national shutdown”. Their demands include action on high unemployment, especially among the youth, closures of small black-owned businesses, the high cost of living and load-shedding. They also demand Ramaphosa’s resignation.

The idea of a small political party demanding a “national shutdown” would be laughable in most scenarios. The EFF, however, has a knack of loudly appropriating grassroots demonstrations triggered by collapsing public services and infrastructure, and rising crime, lawlessness and corruption in the post state-capture era.

Talks to resolve the student and Nehawu members’ grievances have yet to yield meaningful outcomes, such as a “ceasefire” and structured talks.

Two quick observations are worth making: most of the grievances being raised by students and Nehawu members are at least reasonable enough to discuss, and require speedy resolution; and our constitution guarantees everyone a right to protest. However, no-one has a right to vandalise property and force others to join their protests.

We find it disturbing that the government has failed to ensure that these protests remain peaceful. It is the duty of government to protect lives and property, especially of small business owners who cannot afford private security guards.

Police minister Bheki Cele should ensure that the protests are adequately policed to restore business confidence.

We understand the disappointment of public sector unions at a government that negotiates agreements only to renege on their implementation. Still, this historic grievance has to be addressed in a challenging fiscal environment. The finance minister is right to keep the lid on public sector wages.

None of this is reason for a violent strike action that costs the lives of vulnerable patients, or for unreasonable demands for a 10% wage hike. In the current environment, this is reckless.

As for the student debt, it is clearly a systemic crisis. The ANC is largely to blame for the following reasons:

  • It has spent decades raising expectations that young people will receive fee-free higher education.
  • Faced with loss of electoral support, it introduced free higher education in 2017 without adequate resourcing.
  • Years later, it still has no credible plan to resolve legacy debt.

These are serious issues that will not be wished away. They require a durable solution that comes at a cost to the fiscus or a policy change that will cost the ANC. Doing nothing is not a fair solution for taxpayers, students or universities.

The lack of leadership is alarming. Wits and Cosatu (the federation to which Nehawu is affiliated) have undergone leadership changes. This shows in the handling of the crisis. Government inertia is legendary. Only deaths will shock it into action.

The EFF asked small business owners to close their shops on March 20 to avoid vandalism. This is no guarantee that their shops will not be attacked. Our suggestion to EFF leaders is that the “shutdown” is a bad idea and should be cancelled unless they can demonstrate that they are a party serious about government and discipline.

While leadership has been lacking elsewhere, this remains an opportunity to take the high road. No-one should suffer due to this protest.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.