Health and Sports: Should we compromise?

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.

Bose Maposa

Bose Maposa is the Assistant Director of the African Studies Program at Ohio University, USA.

7 Responses to Health and Sports: Should we compromise?

  1. one of the great joys in anticipation of the World Cup for South Africa and her neighbours has been this economic benefits that come hand in hand with hosting such an event. one of the biggest let downs of the GEAR (growth, employment and redistribution) economic policy of Thabo Mbeki's goverment was its shallow jobless growth. which at last i checked stood at 23% unemployment levels. without a doubt south africans have been nothing but ecstatic about the opportunities brought by the world cup.

    indeed, South Africa has a plethora of legislation and policies regarding labour, as the labour movement is one of the parties in the rulling African National Congress's tripartite alliance. but as most people know, there is a big gap between well intended policies and implementation. As you rightly put Bose, it is not enough to get people's jobs, the conditions of which they work under are even more crucial. They are not only important to their personal health but to that of their famillies as well. let us not forget, as u put it, the plain truth that we need the workers for the world cup and we will certainly need them beyond the world cup.

    i am also personally curious to see the reaction of Jacob Zuma's administration as the labour movements were his biggest supporters into office.

  2. It was indeed a great joy to watching the continent of Africa especially South Africa hosting one of the successful events recently, the Confederations Cup. In Piers Edwards' words the Confederations Cup acted as a dress rehearsal for 2010 World Cup. Back on the strike by the working class if indeed the strike will help transform the working conditions for the workers let it be as Bose puts it. The unfortunate part is that when strike takes place there is always the issue of pay raise of which to me we cannot equate it with the value of life. Does the 13% increment being demanded going to transform the working environment.

    I suspect that the organizers and the workers union have no clue about the value the working class is bringing to the table. Jacob Zuma's administration will go for awarding them money to shut their mouth and indeed they will go back to work on the same execrable working conditions. Instead of negotiating on wages they should build a system that will reward people according to their hardwork and also make sure their health and lifestyle improve after the fact. The organizing committee and the leaders of the union should exercise what is called an upside-down pyramid, whereby the upper management is at the bottom and supports the front line employees. Such a model will bridge the gap between well intended policies and implementation. All all I am saying is, the quality of workers health, safety, and renumeration should not be compromised in the name of staging a successful 2010 World Cup.

  3. As Reuben said who knows if the pay increase will affect the standard of living of the worker especially if the issue of unsafe/unhealthy conditions still persist.
    My question though it this: what are these unsafe/unhealthy conditions being bandied about? Is it the lack of portable bathrooms? The non-provision of hard hats? The poor equipment provided? Did someone die at one of the construction sites? I find myself wondering aloud if the pay increase is just the main issue and the working conditions are just an attachment to the agenda. Who knows. However if the contractors are too cheap to provide healthy conditions, I doubt that increasing the pay would be in their "budget".

  4. As I said before workers will be awarded their demand, and indeed they were awarded 12 % increase and tomorrow, Thursday, July 16, are expected back at work, wnd there is an agreement that there would be no strike between now and the 2010 World Cup. The issue of safe and health working conditions has evaporated in the thin air, thus the issue is an attachment. Insomniac the issue here is that contractors sometimes take people for granted and put them in an environment without adhering to safety and health working conditions or standards. People should be compensated and well looked after especially the chemicals and other material substance they get exposed to. Such staff have a negative impact in their lives in a long run and families end up being the losers, while short-term everything was great.
    I have an uncle who spent most of his life working in the mines and was hurt when I was 4 years old and went back to work and got retrenched when I was fourteen years and now believe me I am footing all his medical bills. The winners are the union executives and the upper management within those contractors because that means more money to they pockets. The management benefits are no comparescent to what the people on the ground have, I mean medical scheme not even money. In fact the National Union of Mineworkers described the wage agreement as "very good for the workers" (Sowetan, July 15, 2009). The NUM spokespoerson went on to say the workers would be excited and believe me they are, while working conditions remain the same. Thats just a deal unusual for the workers.

  5. I think negotiating wages and better working conditions go hand in hand. Health and safety know no boundaries. The pay increase should allow workers improve their standard of living, and mostly in their households.
    As for job conditions, companies are supposed to be responsible for that. I do not think we can settle for the cheapness of these companies and accept that they cannot make the work environment safe.
    I actually thought that the strike would force the government be stricter about safe working conditions. If anything, one of the benefits of the World Cup should be better policies and resolutions that have long term benefits.
    I myself am surprised that I have not heard or read that the government, or Zuma in particular, have issued a statement.

  6. Well…Well…Well the problem here is that wages and better working conditions going hand n hand is what you see. Those in power continue to use wages to cover up their failures. Honestly the standard of living cannot be improved by R 1200 about $148 in South Africa. Lets do the math 112% of R1200 means the guy will now earn R1344 about $165.93. Like you as for working conditions companies are "suppose to be responsible." Thats in theory practically is all about inflating the big guys pockets, while the life of the workers on the ground declining slowly. The government is hidding behind improving employment rate under what conditions, who cares as long as legislators companies are awarded tenders. I do not expect the government to issue any statement nor the president because statements are just rhetoric. We need parliamentarians to legislate not press conferences or statements.

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