Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
On Wednesday I stood before a Joint Sitting of Parliament to debate South Africa's hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and declared that I am proud of my country. Today, just two days later, I find myself deeply ashamed of my countrymen.
The latest public sector strike has shown us the worst in human nature. Let me first say that there is no denying the right of public servants to strike, particularly when negotiations deadlock. I myself organized and established the first black trade union to protect workers' rights during apartheid. I am not without sympathy for our workers.
We all know that there are good teachers living on paltry salaries. We know there are dedicated nurses struggling to make ends meet for their own families, while every day they take care of ours. We know there is injustice in the system. We know life is hard and times are tough.
But every man and woman of conscience must draw a line at what they will do to have their own needs met. And it seems that for many there is no line, or it extends far beyond the bounds of what is rational, moral or humane. Our society makes a grand show of supporting ubuntu and we are easily outraged by the assaults against humanity by criminals and corrupt officials. But where is ubuntu when the sheep don the wolves' clothing?
One tragedy after the next has been engineered in the past few days.
It is no accident that two underweight babies died in Natalspruit Hospital. They are not a casualty of wage negotiations. Their deaths were brought about by intentional negligence on the part of nurses into whose care they were entrusted. I am torn between grief and anger. Words fail me.
Once this strike has ended, how could anyone entrust another child into these nurses' care? They have not only gone against the Nurses' Pledge, but against every moral precept by which we live.
We were all concerned by the front page pictures of empty classrooms, knowing that the victims of the teachers' strike are ultimately our children. Where is ubuntu when children are punished for grown-ups' problems?
But our concern over education pales in relation to our horror when a man whose hand is accidently cut off is turned away from two state hospitals; or an 80 year old lies anaesthetized on the operating table while protestors shove the theatre nurse out of the OR; or when soldiers must be sent into hospitals to protect patients; or doctors need to hide pregnant women awaiting Caesareans.
I have the utmost respect for those nurses and teachers who have drawn the line at punishing children and endangering lives; who are continuing to work under very real pressures and threats from their colleagues. I applaud the lone nurse who stayed behind in the neo-natal unit at Natalspruit Hospital, trying to care for 20 babies.
And I weep at her pain over not being able to do more.
We are facing a watershed moment in this nation. This is not only about each one's individual conscience, but our collective conscience as a nation. It is time 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 recognizes that there are instances where rights must be curtailed. Are we erring on the side of liberty?
As with any story, there are many sides and many opinions. 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.
When I spoke at the Joint Sitting on Wednesday I cautioned our nation's leaders to be aware of the raised expectations of our people in the light of the World Cup. Having seen what we are capable of; how much money we could raise and how efficiently we prepared South Africa's infrastructure, people will no doubt be asking why we cannot do more, faster and better, when it comes to service delivery, economic development and social justice.
Why can Government not pay the R1000 housing allowance the unions are demanding? We spent billions of Rand erecting stadia for soccer games.
Can we not place the same value on the people who are educating our children and healing our sick? I am only too aware that it is not that simple. Having been in government for some forty years, I understand the dynamics of our economy and the delicate balancing act between what can be done and what should be done.
These strikes are a complex and thorny issue. But in my mind when it comes to life and children, the grey areas quickly separate into black and white. Those who still see grey have shamed our nation.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
Contact: Liezl van der Merwe, Press Secretary to Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP, 082 729 2510.