In the far off distance you can hear it coming. The season gives off a distinct echo off the windows of buildings. You can tell it’s here when a white Nissan Bakkie, overloaded with amps, invariably turns around a corner followed by the sounds of hundreds of people singing in unison.
It’s one of the weirdest seasons in the Johannesburg calendar , and it’s not based on the browning of leaves or chilly morning sun rises. Its strike season.
Whereas carnivals and festivals in European countries can stop traffic for a day, the South African strike has become synonymous with bringing a city to a standstill. It is a festival like no other.
Journalists either hate them or love them. I fall into the latter. There is excitement. There is action. You have people who are prepared to block the streets to scream their grievances to the world.
Honestly it’s always a thrilling thing to get caught up in the moment. You feel like you are part of a mass unit. You want to sing along. You pick up on the atmosphere of the crowd and feel enlivened by their energy.
But secretly, as a journalist, you become bored of watching the same event unfold in a different location. The trick for me is that I look for something new every time. It’s a photographic challenge to produce something when you can predict what’s going to happen next on the road. I actually get more of a kick out of seeing something different in my photographs than I do at the real event. It’s even a common thing among people who cover these stories often to wish for a gun fight to ensue. (I am not saying I am one of them, but I am not going to deny it either. )
In spite of my colourful introduction, I feel like I have to say that I take strikes very seriously. People might seem like they are having a glorious time out dancing, but for a South African, protest has a violent history and you as a journalist always have to be aware that there is a subtle undercurrent of this. In the end Journo’s do care when it comes to strike season. But I think a lot of the time it’s for the wrong reasons.
You have to be able to distance yourself from the action and focus on what’s at hand…a story.
In this instance, members of NEHAWU, a major labour union in the country, were posing a nationwide strike for an 11% wage increase against a company called Netcare (a company involved in private hospital care). According to the people I was talking to, they work long hours for a basic income of R5000 a month. They have been for the past six years working at this rate. Five years ago, this would not have been much of a problem. But with the heavy increases in transport, electricity and food costs within the country it’s become very hard to sustain a lifestyle within Johannesburg.
(Believe me I know, I have lived off that amount for a few years, not so long ago.)
One of the things that struck me at the protest was that they were not talking about how “fat cat” money earners were pulling in millions of Rands of profit in the business. Leaders were talking about how they didn’t see the sense of “executive breakfasts” or “Irish coffee’s for tea”. These are small things that could help prevent a budget from being blown out of proportion. Just think how much money a business could save if it didn’t spend that extra cash on a smoked salmon every day.