Johannesburg - The lives of patients at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Joburg were put in extreme danger when protesting workers damaged equipment, trashed a theatre, shut down the pharmacy and went as far as assaulting a doctor.
Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, who joined the chorus of those who slammed the violent demonstration as unacceptable, said the doctor was manhandled while holding a baby.
An angry Motsoaledi called for the arrest of National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) protesters who turned the medical facility into a no-go zone early on Thursday. The workers - who included porters and cleaners - burnt tyres and blocked entrances, causing fear and disruption for patients, while demanding that medical staff join their strike.
Motsoaledi called them “hooligans who put the lives of patients at risk”. He said he would contact Police Minister Bheki Cele to discuss the matter.
“This was a sheer act of hooliganism. I really believe that some people must be arrested. No matter how justifiable your grievance, you don’t do that to sick people.”
Motsoaledi said the pharmacy manager told him that police arrived at the hospital and just watched as she helplessly tried to negotiate with the strikers to allow services in the hospital to continue.
He said the workers hid their faces behind masks taken from one of the hospital’s theatres. The minister said the situation was so volatile that only 19 of 50 scheduled operations were carried out before the theatre was trashed.
“We can’t have murderers working here,” Motsoaledi said.
Gauteng Health MEC Dr Gwen Ramokgopa said: “For me, this is another Life Esidimeni unfolding, and I hope that all of us as a society will stand up and say ‘not on our watch’.”
The hospital has 1016 beds and cares for the sickly countrywide and from neighbouring states.
DA health spokesperson Jack Bloom said a terrified nurse described to him how she feared for her safety when she couldn't drive her car out of the grounds because of a burning tyre and aggressive protesters.
“I visited the hospital and found rubbish strewn all over. Non-emergency surgery has been cancelled, and most patients have left the hospital. I was told that protesters threatened staff and patients, and in once instance pulled doctors out of surgery while a patient was on the operating table,” said Bloom.
The workers’ grievances are about unpaid performance bonuses and a fight for overtime in ongoing wage negotiations.
In the casualty ward, patients sat unattended to, while others were turned away and told to get assistance at nearby hospitals.
Said Slindile Maseko, who travelled from Randburg for her regular hypertension check-up, after she was turned away: “If I had known there was a protest, I wouldn’t have come all the way from Randburg. I would have come on another day.”
In the hospital, the workers threw rubbish in the corridors and trashed the lifts.
The protest, according to Nehawu, was justified as the provincial department had relented and agreed to their demands. The workers want to be paid overtime and bonuses from the 2015/2016 financial year until the 2017/2018 financial year.
Addressing a jubilant crowd, Nehawu's Gauteng provincial chairperson Lulamile Sibanda said the government had agreed to pay them before Monday.
“We must celebrate this victory by ensuring that we make the employer pay us for the 2017/2018 financial year."
Charlotte Maxeke spokesperson Lungiswa Mvumvu said the payments were made by the provincial department and not the hospital. “The performance bonuses do not affect only Charlotte Maxeke. It is beyond us and up to the department to solve it,” she added.