Dr Marielle Rus (28) raises her right fist in the air, joins her colleagues with perfect Zuma-like dance steps and sings the chorus of the protest song Imali yami malo yami (“my money, give me my money”) to the tune of the president’s Umshini wami.
Her shoulder-length blonde hair and dark sunglasses bounce rhythmically and the placard above her head reads “Doctors are out of stock”.
“I’m fed up with the health system and decided to start striking last Friday,” she says. “I learned how to toyi-toyi from my black colleagues and they also taught me the words of the Zulu songs.”
Passengers in passing cars give Rus and her fellow strikers the thumbs-up as they blow their red and green vuvuzelas. The toyi-toyiing “helps me to get rid of my frustrations at the hospital”, says Rus. “Instead of sitting in a corner and complaining, I’ve now learned to stand up with a vengeance.”
The open field next to the Rob Ferreira Hospital’s entrance in Piet Retief Road in Mpumalanga’s capital, Nelspruit, is rapidly filling up with belligerent doctors in white coats. Rus’s colleague, Dr Kim Sonntag (27), joins her. Both are community service doctors at Barberton Hospital, an hour’s drive from Nelspruit. The doctors’ strike has taught them how to stand up for what they believe in and has “drawn us closer to our African roots, even though it scares our parents a little”.
“Being white, toyi-toyiing was not something I was familiar with,” says Sonntag. “But it’s something I’ve grown to love. We’re all doing it together and share the same frustrations. And it’s brought the doctors — white and black — together.”
“It’s the only language government understands,” another striking colleague says. “And it’s taken doctors quite a while to realise that.”
Both Rus and Sonntag studied at the University of Cape Town, followed by two-year internships in Pietermaritzburg, after which they were posted to Barberton, without having much of a choice.
“For three years after graduating, doctors have to live a nomadic existence,” says a visibly upset Rus. “Many of us are put up in rural hospitals where there is no proper supervision. We are thrown to the wolves and, on top of it all, we’re paid peanuts.”
Rus and her colleagues will not accept government’s latest salary offer to doctors and will not stop striking, even if they risk losing their jobs.
“We’re not in it for the money and will strike for as long as it takes,” says Dr Frans Masuma from Bushbuckridge Hospital. “We won’t accept any offer that doesn’t include the immediate fixing of our hospitals. You cannot work at a hospital knowing that your pocket is full, but that you can’t help patients because there are no drugs and equipment.”
Dr Thomas Bredenkamp, a senior medical officer at Shongwe Hospital near Komatipoort, is coordinating the Mpumalanga strike. “The government can try to fire us, but we’re warning them: ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’ If they fire one of us, none of us will return to work until that person has been reinstated. We will stand together until the end. We have all learned to strike. ”
If interns performing community service lose their jobs, they won’t be able to practise as doctors in South Africa. “But if my career here dies for something worth dying for, I don’t mind,” says Bredenkamp. “Perhaps that’s when people will really see that we’re serious about this.”
The doctors start a new song, targeted directly at Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. “Wena ulele lapho endlini [You are sleeping],” they sing. “Tyini madoda isimangaliso sokubulawa nguMotsoaledi [Oh man, what a shock to be destroyed by Motsoaledi].”
“I think Motsoaledi is just like all the other politicians,” says Dr Desmond Lamula, a community service officer at Temba Hospital in White River. “Full of lies and public service, but when it comes to delivery, there’s just nothing.”
“I’ve really lost confidence in what I thought he would bring to the system,” says Dr Mampho Mochaoa from Tonga Hospital, south of the Kruger National Park. “He messed up when he went public with figures he did not even discuss with us and, for that matter, figures that were not even true.”
“We are not idiots!” and “Stop robbing us!” the doctors’ signs read. Their dance steps are getting faster, their rhythm more urgent. “We give sub-optimal care up to the point where we are risking our licences, not our lives, to carry the weight of the government’s bad management and irresponsible behaviour,” says Bredenkamp. “That’s why we are not scared of the Health Professionals’ Council — we’re used to putting our licences at risk for the government anyway.”
Dr Christopher Zungu is one of the singers. He says: “The Hippocratic oath is about ethics. I don’t think it’s ethical for us to allow the government to let things continue the way it’s going. In a few years we won’t have a health system if we don’t act now.”
Rus and Sonntag have not lost any of their energy and have kept their places in the front row. “We’re not going to stop striking until this broken system has been fixed,” they say.