1996 The Girls Of 'Baywatch’, the hit TV series that led to a spike in interest in lifesaving. From left to right: Traci Bingham, Donna D'Errico, Yasmine Bleeth, Gena Lee Nolin And Nancy Valen. Baywatch (Photo By Getty Images)
  • Lifeguarding and lifesaving on beaches was just declared an essential service, removing the right of employees to strike.
  • Such strikes invariably cost lives, lifesaving experts say.
  • But in some places, lifeguards are paid intermittently or not at all, even as voluntary lifesaving declines in popularity.

As of Friday, lifeguards at South African beaches may no longer go on strike.

The Essential Services Committee of the department of labour on Friday gazetted a new addition to the list of essential services: "The lifeguarding and or lifesaving services at the beaches."

That immediately activated a section of the Labour Relations Act that limits the otherwise broad right to strike. Unlike just about everyone else, essential services employees may not strike – or even engage "in any conduct in contemplation or furtherance of a strike".

Several people drowned on the Wild Coast in December while lifeguards were not on duty in December. In recent years beaches in various tourist hotspots have been closed at times because of such strikes, as lifesavers complained about not being given the equipment to do their jobs and working out of facilities without electricity.

Such strikes will now be unlawful – but that will not solve underlying problems with lifesaving.

Too many people drown because municipal efforts at lifesaving are patchy at best, various people involved in rescue at sea and beach saving told Business Insider South Africa. Meanwhile, amateur lifesaving appears to be in decline.

"It used to be quite a thing to be a lifeguard, everyone looked up at the lifeguards," says Steven Kitto of the 91-year-old Durban Surf Lifesaving Club. "It's not as glamorous  anymore."

The Durban club, like many of its peers, supplement municipal lifesaving services, especially over weekends and holidays. Its volunteer members patrol beaches, rescue swimmers in trouble and – crucially – blow annoying whistles to keep beachgoers in designated areas.

That kind of prevention is essential, says Kitto, but it is increasingly hard to find people willing to take the evil looks and occasional hurdled insults that come with that duty.

"People are just not as keen to give back anymore," says Kitto. But the number of people who ignore no-swimming signs, or swim drunk, or simply underestimate the ocean, has not declined.

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