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South Africa strike risks babies' lives

By Robyn Curnow, CNN
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Father calls radio show for medical help
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Father drove around Johannesburg looking for someone to deliver baby
  • Newborn was taken in by a private hospital after he called a radio station for help
  • Nurses, hospital staff among thousands of workers striking over pay levels
  • Government says it can't afford to meet their demands

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- Thomas Lehloholo was driving around Johannesburg desperately looking for a doctor to deliver his premature son when he got the call telling him it was too late. He had become a father.

"I could hear the baby screaming in the background I said you cannot be having a baby. She said we just had it. Wow," Lehloholo told CNN.

His girlfriend had given birth at home, aided by her grandmother, after rushing to a public hospital and finding the doors closed and workers absent.

Nurses and hospital staff are among thousands of public sector workers striking over pay in South Africa.

Workers have called for wage rises of more than eight percent -- well above inflation -- and enhanced housing allowances as part of their demands.

The government says with a million jobs lost from the economy in the past year, it cannot afford to raise employee wages.

Video: Strike paralyzes South Africa
Video: South Africa on strike
Video: Pregnant woman turned away from hospital
Gallery: South Africa strikes
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"We can't be seen to be saying 'put more into salaries' because that means we then won't be able to tend to the needs of the millions who are unemployed and the poor," government spokesman, Themba Maseko told CNN.

The government has deployed military and the police to hospitals and clinics to ensure those most in need receive medical attention.

Still, premature babies were left untended in empty neonatal wards.

So concerned was Thomas Lehloholo about the lack of professional medical care for his newborn son that he phoned a talk radio station to plead for help.

A pediatrician heard his call and offered to bring his girlfriend Nokulthula Mahlangu and new baby to a private hospital where the child is being treated in the intensive care unit.

Baby Lehlohol is one of around 90 babies rescued from public hospitals in Johannesburg in the past week by Netcare, the country's biggest private healthcare provider.

The group's director, Dr. Richard Friedland says two-thirds of the babies rescued were just weeks old, some weighed as little as 900 grams -- or just under two pounds -- and many were close to death.

At one hospital, he said dozens of babies had been left to fend for themselves.

"When we went into that ward it only had two security guards and we found 24 crying babies. For all of us who are pretty hardened in terms of trauma and doctors this was the most emotional moment of our lives. Many of us started crying," he said.

When we went into that ward it only had two security guards and we found 24 crying babies
--Dr. Richard Friedland, Netcare

"These are babies that had only been fed at nine in the morning. It was now 12 at night, they had soiled nappies, were cold and needed to be resuscitated."

Netcare has cared for more than 400 people who have been affected by the strikes, including patients suffering gunshot wounds who had been turned away from unstaffed public hospitals.

The government still hopes to negotiate an agreement that is acceptable to unions.

"We believe that (we will) be able to sit and explain the economic challenges that we're facing as a nation, and that the unions will understand that yes, improving the salaries of employees is important, but equally building schools, making sure there is safety and security, providing water, electricity, building houses for our citizens is equally important," Maseko said.

On Friday, another powerful union in South Africa threatened to wade into the dispute if the government failed to meet the workers' demands.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said its members would walk off the job next week if the government does not meet strikers' wage demands.

"We are angry that whilst those who are privileged have children go to school overseas; our children have turned into street kids," the union said in a statement.

"The NUM fully supports the public sector strike and would next week Thursday ensure that every mining operation, every construction site and every energy worker joins the public sector strike in different forms."

The mineworkers union is the largest union in the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the group said.

CNN's Hilary Whiteman contributed to this report.