Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Probe Corruption, Workers Demand as They March in City" [Shutting Down HIV Clinics]

When I said that I wouldn’t have known anything about the current municipal strike in South Africa if I didn’t happen to turn on the news now and then, it wasn’t strictly true. Although I have not seen any of the havoc wreaked so far, I have caught the edges and effects of the strike. Municipal workers from the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) and the Independent Municipal and Allies Trade Union (IMATU) went on strike recently, demanding a 15% pay raise to address the inflation that hit South Africa last year and to bring appallingly low salaries up to some semblance of a living wage. Inflation has now dropped down (from a 13% high to around 8%). The South African Local Governments Association has offered a 13% incremental raise of all salaries and a minimum wage, but the unions rejected it. It has been approximated that over 16% of the South African workforce is now out on strike. Voters reaffirmed the might of the African National Congress (ANC, Mandela’s party) and brought Jacob Zuma to power in elections held not too long ago, but many are now angry that none of the promises doled out during the campaigns have been fulfilled.

Water, garbage collection, transportation, and other essential services have been affected. I’ve seen overflowing trash bins put out for collection day that have not been picked up, although it’s not on the scale of, say, the trash problems in Naples or the once-a-month-if-we’re-lucky collection day in Sierra Leone (the trash from my house was actually being thrown in the neighbors’ bushes, I found out after a few months). Strikers around Jo-berg rioted a few days ago, throwing garbage and rocks, targeting and/or attacking police and motorists, and setting things on fire. Some strikers were drunk or otherwise intoxicated, possibly inspiring some of the uninhibited behavior. Police responded with rubber bullets and pepper spray. I’ve not really been here long enough to speculate whether the police were using excessive force or the strikers were out of control (both sides, of course, point fingers at the other). What I do know is that the strikers’ tactics are losing them support among the South African public—people are angry that anyone is striking in a country suffering from high unemployment made even higher by the global recession, and they are unhappy with the unruly and violent nature of the marches. The strike also affects services in the poor townships and informal settlements that have basic amenities, such as trash pickup.

There was a huge protest in Cape Town yesterday, and everyone at m2m was advised to stay inside as much as possible and to avoid downtown. When the Princeton fellows and I decided to venture out at lunch, one staff member tried to convince us not to go and told us to come back immediately should anything appear amiss. This made us (maybe just me) a bit nervous, but we were literally going around the block. Nothing happened—we didn’t spot a single striker, though the day before I’d had to pass through a large group of mostly men with sticks (it was unclear whether the sticks were for signs or for hitting things) to get out of the office. The group did not give me a second look and did not seem angry, but it was a bit troubling at first. I could hear the roar of the rally yesterday—whistles, horns, and singing and shouting—but it did not pass by our office.

What leads me to write a post about an event in which I am not in any way involved or even a witness to, however, is the tactic that the strikers used yesterday to get more people out on the streets. A group of strikers stormed (the newspaper’s word, not mine) the Khayelitsha Community Health Centre, ostensibly to intimidate the government health workers at the clinic to join the strike. It is illegal for healthcare workers to strike in South Africa, so few have walked off the job. In the process of trying to get the healthcare workers to initiate an illegal strike, the municipal workers, armed with sjamboks, or whips/clubs, drove out patients coming into the clinic for anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) and tuberculosis medications—i.e., blocking chronically ill HIV+ patients from the treatments that will keep them healthy and alive. Furthermore, skipping ARV or TB drug doses can create multi-drug resistant strains of both illnesses, which make treatment and survival that much more difficult for patients and create global health threats of illnesses that cannot be treated or at least managed with drugs. After this event, the Department of Health decided to close the Khayelitsha (a township on the outskirts of Cape Town where many of m2m’s clients live or go to receive counseling and treatment) center and others in the township along with other clinics in different areas. When I asked about how our clients would deal, or if there was anything m2m had as a contingency do for them (m2m does not deal in any medical aspect of HIV, from prescribing drugs, to administering tests, to giving mothers formula for their babies), my boss shook his head. They always find a way, he said. Something like this happens every year, and there's nothing we can do. The clinics are often the first to close, as they did during the xenophobic violence of the past year and during other strikes, including one by doctors last month. To have HIV and to live positively means having to find a way no matter what the obstacle, and there are many and they are all daunting.

All day, I’ve been thinking about the strikers shutting down the clinic, and it infuriates me. No matter how right someone is to strike, how understandable it might be for someone to get so angry and frustrated and marginalized that he or she may turn to violence as a last resort (I don’t condone this or any violence, but I can understand why it happens sometimes), there is no excuse for denying sick people, especially those with HIV or AIDS who have so many other obstacles to overcome, from stigma to drug shortages, a safe and stable place where they can seek out the treatment that they need to survive. The rubbish throwing was pushing it, but storming a clinic distributing ARVs crosses every line I can possibly think of. The strikers claim they are holding the politicians that they voted into power accountable for all of the BMWs they bought after election, for the corruption they promised to stop, for the wages they pledged they’d raise. But in the end, as it often happens, what starts as a challenge to power becomes another excuse to tear down the few people or institutions that are doing good.

Further strike coverage: LA Times Photo Gallery, about the clinic shut downs, about the strike, more photos.

Photo above: Brenton Geach, Cape Argus Times

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