Health Workers’ Strike in South Africa Contradicts “oath to save lives”: Catholic Bishop

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha Diocese in South Africa. Credit: SACBC

The violence that has characterized health workers’ strike in South Africa contradicts the “oath to save lives” that medical practitioners take, the Catholic Bishop of the country’s Mthatha Diocese has said.

In a March 11 statement, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka decries the violence on the part of the striking health workers, describing it as “cruel and thuggish”. 

“The method for striving for a just wage must be balanced with health workers’ oath to save lives,” Bishop Sipuka says about the health workers affiliated with the members of South Africa’s National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU).

The health worders embarked on an indefinite strike demanding a 10% salary increment, improved medical benefits, and R 2,500 (USD 137.53) housing allowance on March 6. 

The Union members have reportedly blocked hospitals. Four people have died “in a manner that could be directly attributed to the strike” according to South Africa's Health Minister, Dr. Joe Phaahla.


In his March 11 statement, the Local Ordinary of Mthatha Diocese who doubles as the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) says that while the health workers have the right to ask for fair wages, “the end of their cause does not justify their cruel and thuggish means.”

The acts of the striking health workers contradict the value of keeping healthy and alive poor people who cannot afford to go to private hospitals, he says. 

Health workers, Bishop Sipuka says, are expected to "care for the poor with great sacrifice, most of the time with inadequate provision of means and space to do their work. As we saw during the height of COVID, sometimes they pay the ultimate price of losing their lives. They deserve to be respected, treated well, and paid well," Bishop Sipuka says.

In his view, health workers are poorly remunerated "not because of a lack of complaining by health workers but because of the lack of care by the authorities."

Still, SACBC President emphasizes in reference to striking health workers, poor remuneration “does not justify their method of raising their noble call for a decent wage, which includes preventing the sick poor from accessing health services when they need them most, intimidating those who choose to work and damaging hospital properties.”

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The President of the Conference that brings together Catholic Bishops in Botswana, Eswatini, and South Africa calls upon Catholic health workers in South Africa to shun lawlessness and “criminal activities” that disrespect human life during their strike. 

“I call on Catholic health workers, yes, to strive earnestly for a just wage but to dissociate themselves with forces and ideologies that lack respect for life and engage in lawless and criminal activities,” says Bishop Sipuka.

On Sunday, March 12, NEHAWU General Secretary, Zola Saphetha, announced that health workers in South Africa would continue with the strike in a “more intensified manner” from Monday, March 13.

In a March 10 report, the South African Medical Association (SAMA) chairperson is quoted as saying that while the association supports the health workers’ grievances, it is opposed to actions that compromise the health of patients. 

“We support the strike. We are on record complaining about the conditions of service, complaining about the poor recognition and compensation of health care workers. We understand where they are coming from and we support them,” Dr. Mvuyisi Mzukwa says. 


Dr. Mzukwa adds, “What we do not support is when unions begin to block entrances to hospitals, destroy infrastructure, and intimidate clinical officers and nurses that are going to assist patients.”

“Why are you taking your frustrations out on patients when you know where the politicians are?” the chairperson of SAMA poses.

Magdalene Kahiu is a Kenyan journalist with passion in Church communication. She holds a Degree in Social Communications from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). Currently, she works as a journalist for ACI Africa.