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South Africa: More than 500 health workers in the Eastern Cape have lost their tools

The nurses want a rural allowance. Patients from six hospitals and clinics in the local municipality of Raymond Mhlaba wait for hours.

About 500 nurses and nursing assistants from six hospitals and clinics in the local municipality of Raymond Mhlaba in the Eastern Cape downed tools on Monday.

They ask to receive a rural allowance of 1,200 rand.

The provincial health department says only nurses who have won a bargaining council case against the state should receive the allowance.

About 500 nurses and nursing assistants from six hospitals and clinics in the local municipality of Raymond Mhlaba in the Eastern Cape demonstrated on Monday, demanding to receive a rural allowance of R1,200. The protest saw many sick patients stranded in the facilities as nurses pulled down tools.

The nurses want Dr Rolene Wagner, head of the Eastern Cape Department of Health, to pay them rural allowances which they say are paid to some staff nurses in the provinces.

The nurses say the stipend is part of a deal reached between unions and the provincial Department of Health at a bargaining council in 2019. The stipend was paid to all nurses working in rural areas until when it was terminated in 2007.

Now, the provincial department says only the 28 nurses who were named and won in the arbitration case against the state should receive the allowance.

At the Fort Beaufort Provincial Hospital on Monday, protesters began burning trash and wood outside the front door. They then marched through downtown Fort Beaufort and sang “Sasikwenze ntoni Wagner lento ungafuniyo ukusinika imali yethu?” which means “Wagner, what did we do to you that you wouldn’t give us our money?” They vowed to continue protesting until Wednesday.

According to Thembinkosi Qwakanisa, a registered nursing assistant at Alice’s Victoria Hospital, representatives met Dr Wagner in East London on June 24.

“We told him that there are over 3,000 nurses in the province who do not receive the rural allowance. We do the same work and this wage inequality demoralized us. It is also sowing division between us and 28 nurses. [who are getting the allowance]. But [Wagner] walked out of the meeting and never came back,” he said.

Olivia Ngethu works as a nurse at Tower Psychiatric Hospital and has worked in rural areas for 11 years. “We need the rural allowance… The roads are impassable and repairs to our cars have hit our pockets hard. I have injured my ankle and had to travel to east London to receive orthopedic treatment because there are no medical specialists here,” she said.

As nurses picketed the hospital in Fort Beaufort, staff nurse Nobathembu told GroundUp that of the 28 nurses, only five showed up for work. When we arrived at noon, she said that the patients had not yet received meals and medicine.

We also saw around 16 patients waiting to be helped, some with broken arms and legs, including children.

Patient Nothembile Gxekwa, 82, said she arrived before 8am and was told by a nurse that she had to wait for help as most staff were protesting. At 2 p.m., she still had not been helped.

Nombeko Mahlathini from Seymour said: “I left home at 7am and spent R100 to come to the hospital for my broken arm. I didn’t get a chance to have breakfast because I was worried about the long queue. My blood pressure has skyrocketed and I’m hungry. It’s almost 3 p.m. and I have to go take a taxi home.

Yonela Dekeda, spokesperson for the provincial health department, said the rural allowance is paid according to a collective agreement negotiated and signed by the employer and the unions. “The collective agreement lists the professionals working in rural areas who should benefit from the allowance in question.”

Dekeda said the nurses currently protesting are in lower labor categories than professional nurses. “From the employer’s perspective, these categories are not listed under the professional nurses who are to benefit from the rural allowance agreement.”

Dekeda denied that Dr. Wagner left the meeting with nursing representatives last Friday. “The General Management team was addressed by the CFO and the Director of Labor Relations on June 15 and again on June 24. The department head engaged with the representatives and the collective bargaining process was explained .

“And the response from the National Department of Health was split, advising the [provincial] department that the matter was receiving urgent attention,” she said.

The protest continues Tuesday morning.

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