Uphill fight to vaccinate

Posted on July 16, 2021


(First published on Fin24 and in City Press, South Africa)

Where are the unions as South Africa limps through yet another ill-considered jobs slaughter of a lockdown?  Especially as thousands of teachers and educational support staff continue to refuse the Covid-19 vaccine.
It’s a good question to ask, when many — if not most — of the 582,000 education sector workers are members of trade unions.  But the simple truth is that the five unions in the sector have done a great deal in trying to educate members about Covid-19, coronavirus and the vaccine strategy.  It has often been an uphill battle.

The unions claim, with justification, that they have done more than the education department.in providing clear, unambiguous messages throughout the sector about the coronavirus threat and the need to vaccinate.  Along with meetings and formal discussions, the unions have devoted considerable resources to producing podcasts and educational videos dealing with the science and the facts about why Covid-19 vaccination is vital.

In a welcome show of solidarity, the five unions, assisted by the public sector law centre, Section 27 also produced, as a united effort, a “myth buster” pamphlet, dealing with the six most common myths peddled by those opposing vaccination.  But this has been countered by a slew of repeated myth peddling.

According to National Professional Teachers’ Organisation executive director Basil Manuel, the union education effort sometimes feels like “fighting against a tide”.  That “tide” is now being driven by a self-styled evangelical Christian group,Watchers & Gatekeepers (W&G), headed by Free State pastor John Subiso Mosepele supported by advocate and proclaimed pan-Africanist, Sabelo Sibanda.

The group, which claims the support of “more than 3,000:” religious congregations in the region, has issued a threat of civil legal action against union officials who encourage members to vaccinate.  In a “notice of liability” to education sector unions the W&G warns that anyone encouraging Covid-19 vaccinations will be “putting themselves personally at risk of a civil lawsuit for damages, and potential imprisonment”.

“They are targeting teachers not only because of the influential positions teachers tend to hold in the community,” says SA Democratic Teachers’ Union general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke.  “It is also because teachers may influence learners who may, in turn, influence their parents.”

While the unions have not taken the W&G threat seriously, they have handed the letter over to the police.  They realise that this letter, along with new internet podcasts, forms part of a growing propaganda campaign against vaccination.

And it is a campaign that uses what Maluleke diplomatically calls “unfortunate statements” by several leading figures.  Prime among these is chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s outburst in Tembisa in December where he informed health workers that vaccines could “corrupt your DNA” and may be designed to “infuse triple-six” (the “Mark of the Beast/Devil”).  

A statement in January by the Cosatu labour federation president Zingiswa Losi that South Africans do not want “non-organic” vaccines is also continuing to bolster vaccine scepticism throughout the labour movement.  Although she has not retracted her statement, Losi, a student traditional healer, now says she does not oppose Cosatu’s pro-vax stance.

More doubt has also been promoted by several leading ANC figures, including national executive member, Tony Yengeni .  And this week, at his controversial “address to the nation” press conference, former president Jacob Zuma made it clear that he had not been vaccinated.

However, as the unions point out, vaccination, despite claims to the contrary, is not mandatory.  It is the right of individuals to refuse the “jab”.  But the exercise of rights also carries responsibilities and consequences.

In the light of all the available evidence, unvaccinated individuals pose a threat not only to themselves, but to others as “potential incubators for more lethal variants”.  As such, they may not, in the case of teachers, work in schools.

Although not mandatory, most South African schools in both the state and private sectors already ask for proof of immunisation when any child is enrolled.  The same will almost certainly apply with the Covid-19 vaccines.

These issues tend to be ignored by the W&G and other such campaigners.  Instead, they claim that Covid-19 vaccines are, at the very least, “experimental”.  In one of his podcasts Pastor Mosepele warns that people are being used instead of “pigs, rats, monkeys”.

“It may seem stupid and crazy, but this is what we have to deal with,” says Manuel.  Maluleke also finds  confusing the fact that so many apparently sensible people accept such nonsense.  “I think one should always choose life over conspiracy theories,” he says.

But one of the reasons for these conspiracy theories gaining such a foothold is that the faction-riven government is not trusted.  “The wheels have come off and there seems no desire in official quarters to do anything to put them back on again,” a teacher in the Western Cape noted.

Posted in: Uncategorized