South African nurse describes the struggle of civil servants striking across the country

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Lodick Mashile, a surgical nurse for all his working life, took to the picket line outside his hospital Friday, joining hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers and other civil servants across South Africa striking for better pay.

Mashile says he just can't get by on his 9,000 rand ($1,200) monthly salary and 500 rand ($70) housing allowance. The 35-year-old said he became a nurse 10 years ago because he wanted to help people.

"But I can't help people if I can't help myself," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the blowing of vuvuzelas and chanting by fellow strikers at the gates of Helen Joseph hospital in Johannesburg, where Mashile works.

With the strike in its third day Friday, clashes between strikers and police continued and army medics and ordinary South Africans, answering a government call for volunteers, served meals to patients, cleaned wards, changed babies' diapers and helped retired nurses at public hospitals dispense medicine. Private hospitals, which are not affected by the strike, are taking some of the sickest patients.

Many South Africans were aghast that the sick and frail were suffering because of the strike.

"We are horrified that care is being denied to the weakest and most vulnerable," the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference said in a statement Friday.

State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele told reporters that strikers accused of threatening other workers, vandalism or other crimes would be taken to special courts.

Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa's minister of health, said it is unacceptable that striking nurses were preventing ambulances from entering or leaving hospitals.

"Even during the time of war, people don't tamper with hospitals," he said.

But, in a front-page editorial, the Johannesburg newspaper The Times said the government should consider paying high-performing civil servants better wages.

Unions are demanding an 8.6 percent wage increase and a 1,000 rand ($137) housing allowance. The government is offering a 7 percent increase plus 700 rand ($96) for housing. In a statement Thursday, the government said it could not afford to offer more.

The government has given unions representing civil servants three weeks to accept its offer. Negotiations were continuing, and it was unclear how long the strike might last. A public service strike in 2007 lasted a month.

"This could go on as long as the one in 2007," said Mashile, the nurse. "We hope not."

Mashile said he misses his patients, but feels compelled to go to the streets because of his financial problems.

"I'm always in debt," he said. Five relatives, including three children in primary school, depend on his salary.

Banks have told Mashile that his salary before taxes and housing allowance is too low to qualify for a home loan, and he earns too much to take advantage of government programs to house the poor.

"I'm in the middle," he said. "If I'm the middle class, I have to afford a house, at least. A car, it's a luxury."

Yet Mashile said he would advise young people to go into nursing.

"What I can tell them is that they are going to struggle in this field," he said. "I won't tell them not to go, because we still need professionals to provide these kinds of services to our communities."

Mandla Sidu, spokesman for the health department in the province that includes Johannesburg, said 90 percent of staff in the province's 46 hospitals wasn't at work Friday. Some were on strike, and some were afraid of being confronted by angry co-workers on the picket lines, he said.

Hospitals in other parts of the country said they were less affected.

Sporadic violence has been reported across the country. At Helen Joseph, piles of smoldering tires at the gates testified to strikers' attempts to keep patients and doctors out.

Unions said they were calling on their members not to resort to violence or threats.

South Africa has been hit hard by the global recession, losing 900,000 jobs last year on top of already high unemployment. The government has said it wants to devote funds to creating new jobs, not just raising the salaries of those already working.