This August, only weeks after South Africa hosted the World Cup to show off itself and its remarkable post-apartheid progress, the country was brought to a state of national emergency by a three-week long strike by 1.3 million public sector workers. Though the labor dispute behind the strikes amounted to a relatively minor 1.1 percent pay increase and R200 ($18) monthly housing allowance, it brought much of the country to a halt, including the all-important health sector. With everything from research hospitals to rural clinics crippled or closed entirely, and with South Africa still struggling against one of the world's worst HIV epidemics, the human cost of the strike could have been far worse.
Thankfully, the South African military stepped in, providing health services nationwide and allowing me to observe something I have long studied: what it means when the military plays doctor. Whether a military intervenes to provide necessary humanitarian aid, or whether it incorporates health services in pursuit of a larger security goal, this intersection of soldier and doctor was on full display in South Africa.
My first encounter with the labor dispute strike was outside Durban's Addington Hospital. The hospital is within sight of the former location of the FIFA World Cup Fan Zone, where thousands of spectators, including myself, watched the games. Weeks before, thousands of World Cup visitors had ambled past the hospital along Durban's waterfront. This time, a crowd of workers clustered outside the hospital's entrance.