By Bose Maposa
A South African doctor commenting about the health system in South Africa in the Salud! documentary a few years ago advised spectators that they should “enjoy the soccer but just don’t get hurt on the field, there might not be anybody to look after you”. One of the main questions arising from the Confederations Cup, asked by Siphokazi Magadla in the previous blog article ‘The politics of the VUVUZELA: the tough questions of an African World Cup‘ was: how should Africans use this forum provided by this soccer World Cup to re-negotiate their African identity in all its multifaceted terms: the political, the socio-cultural and the economic? She noted that before the question of the Vuvuzela came about, the biggest worries for the South African 2010 organizing team was their readiness to host the event, worries which included the capacity and safety of the stadiums, the safety of supporters and the battle against crime.
However, recent events have given the discussion a new direction. Today marks the sixth day of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) backed construction workers strike that saw the construction of many World Cup stadiums come to a halt. Amongst the workers’ complaints are low pay, and, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions. A BBC article reported that Danny Jordan, head of the World Cup organizing committee, said he respected the right of the workers to strike and also added that “the construction workers have been the lifeblood of the 2010 FIFA World Cup project”. The South African Mail & Guardian reported the indefinite strike as the biggest industrial action since new President Jacob Zuma took office in May. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said the action by about 70 000 workers would continue until employers gave in to their demand for a 13% pay rise. “COSATU, and the construction workers, are as passionate about the 2010 World Cup as anyone, and will do everything possible to ensure its success. But we will not tolerate the stadiums being built by workers who are underpaid or working in dangerous or unhealthy conditions,” it said in a statement.
The NY Times also did its share of reporting in the article ‘World Cup in Africa Stumbles‘ – not that as Africans we do not take pride in one of our countries hosting the World Cup, but would it kill you to add 5 more letters i.e. South? It is the South African construction workers that are on strike, let’s not perpetuate the ignorance. It is hard to imagine that the same newspaper would have referred to strikes in the last World Cup in Germany as “World Cup in Europe stumbles.” Or even the World Cup in South Korea, as “World Cup in Asia stumbles,” yet it remains acceptable for the media to make such references to African countries. Nonetheless, here lies a subject for another day.
The most striking aspect of the articles was the health aspect. The main problem with this particular sector is that though it forms the backbone of all other sectors and aspects of the lives of citizens, these other sectors overwhelmingly influence it. Health is affected by education, economics, politics, housing, working conditions but the health sector itself has little authority over these aspects. Maternal and child health is greatly affected by the level of education of the mother; nonetheless, just for the mere fact that one is healthy it does not directly translate to their level of education. Workers’ working conditions and wages affect their health and the quality of healthcare that they receive. If indeed the workers are the ‘lifeblood’ of the project, can we afford to survive with unhealthy blood? It’s doubtful! It is time we give health its due respect. Health is a basic human right.
The construction workers are on strike because of the health hazard that confronts them. Though no one, especially Africans, would like to see anything hindering the success of the World Cup, it is plausible that the workers seize the moment and the opportunity to demand their basic right. Sport is a very powerful negotiating tool. It is said that President Nixon used table tennis as a key diplomatic ploy in his opening negotiations with the Chinese Government. Protesting against racial inequality in the US, John Carlos and Tommie Smith accepted their medals bare-footed, wearing beads, and gave the “Black Power” salute while on the Olympic victory podium at the Mexico City games. A political stance by the international community came as a protest against South Africa’s apartheid regime and thus saw the banning of South Africa from international sporting events in the late seventies. If indeed this strike will allow for a better working environment and thus a healthier lifestyle, then let it be so. This one simple act has the potential to change the public policy making process and its implementation.
If South Africa is to prove that it has made great strides towards democracy and improving the lives of all its citizens; if it is to prove that it is capable of hosting the World Cup; if it is to prove itself capable of state-of-the-art stadiums, then it must also prove that it is capable of meeting one of the fundamental rights of all its citizens: the right to healthy and safe working conditions. Let it not concentrate only on making the visitors happy but also use this platform to boost and improve the lives of its citizens. Let South Africa not forget that it received the opportunity to host the World Cup due to the confidence in its labor force. The visitors of the World Cup will come and go; the workers however, will be there to further carry the dreams of hosting another World Cup. How much sacrifice should workers make for the World Cup to succeed and at what cost? These are our unsung heroes.