, JOHANNESBURG, May 29 – South African doctors were set to take to the streets on Friday in a rare mass protest to demand a 50 percent wage hike and government action to avert a crisis in state hospitals.
The march follows weeks of angry picketing and an illegal strike last month over charges of gross underpay, drug and equipment shortages, and heavy workloads with shifts lasting up to 36 hours.
The South African Medical Association (SAMA) called Friday’s march over wage adjustments that the state has failed to introduce since July last year.
"It’s time to go out and air our grievances. There have been demonstrations and this is now the next step up," SAMA chairwoman Denise White told AFP.
The 17,000-strong doctors union said an independent study had shown that state doctors were underpaid by between 50 and 75 percent.
South Africa has more than 14,000 state doctors who serve 80 percent of the 48 million population who cannot afford private health care. Some 43 percent of South Africans live on less than two dollars a day.
"We clearly, on our basic salary, are demanding a 50 percent hike up to bring us to parity with other professionals," White said.
"During the initial negotiations, the employer tabled a ridiculously pathetic offer which did not exceed five percent. That just angered doctors even further."
Interns take home less than 1,000 dollars (717 euros) after deductions and specialists roughly double that, according to Mpho Mohlala, deputy chairwoman of the United Doctors Forum.
Last month nearly 400 striking doctors were issued with dismissal letters which the health department replaced with final warnings after the boycott was called off, she said.
"We are not giving proper basic care to the patients. You are not doing justice to the patients. Do you think operating (on) a patient without having sleep for 36 hours, you are functioning? You are non-functional," said Mohlala.
"We’ve got an exodus of doctors leaving the country, going to work somewhere overseas, and we’ve got lots and lots of doctors moving out of the public sector to the private sector," she told AFP.
Private and public doctors from SAMA will gather from 0900 GMT to march in three provinces wearing black armbands to symbolise the "mourning of our dying health system". A memorandum will be handed to health officials in Pretoria.
The health department has acknowledged challenges but described as "alarmist" media reports that the sector is in crisis. Contingency plans are in place for Friday, it said.
But while health facilities vary from excellent to atrocious, SAMA said all are buckling under poor staffing and deteriorating equipment.
Health sector strikes are outlawed in South Africa where doctors are considered an essential service alongside the police, army, and nurses.
The health department said it views Friday’s protest as illegal, but SAMA said the march is lawful and in line with regulations for public gatherings.
The latest protest comes as South Africa entered its first post-apartheid recession this week amid escalating pressures from labour bodies for new President Jacob Zuma’s government to deliver better wages.