BEFORE his newly-acquired ailment, Vanayedwa Ndungwane was a
jovial man with a calm conduct.
The former computer programmer enjoyed nothing more than his
weekend strolls into his township and meeting friends for a Friday shebeen
drink, listening to jazz and discussing sports and politics.
A couple of months ago, he felt very scared and humiliated.
He had gone to the local hospital after he was referred there by a medical practitioner.
The hospital had to use the high quality scanners at their
disposal to check why he had lost his voice. He had suffered a mild stroke
earlier this year.
As is the pattern nowadays with South Africa’s public
hospitals catering for the poor, he was shouted at and disparaged and scolded
for having attended the hospital instead of going to a clinic near to his home.
This happened shortly before he was told that the equipment
that was supposed to check his throat had broken down. He was told to go home
and no specific date was given to him to come back.
Basically he was being sent home to die – that was if the
sickness was serious. Nurses did not care whether the cause of his problem was
serious or not. Luckily he survived. But his voice has gone very weak and his
health has deteriorated a bit.
There are many similar cases in South Africa. What reminded
me of this particularly sad story was the news this week that hospitals were
now being blamed over cancer deaths.
According to a Johannesburg-based daily newspaper, two of
Gauteng’s largest state hospitals stand accused of delaying the treatment and
diagnosis of hundreds of desperately ill cancer patients because of broken
The paper said Barnett Fine, a patient at Steve Biko
Academic Hospital, died a painful death because the hospital didn’t have the
proper medication and the health system had failed to treat him for cancer.
Fine died in September this year and has now become the face
of the campaign, which is demanding better care for cancer sufferers.
Fine’s daughter, Hanna Neuhuis, wants her father’s
experience to help in the fight for better treatment.
Fine was diagnosed with throat cancer in December last year.
In the seven months it took him to die, he was turned away from Steve Biko
Academic Hospital because of waiting lists and broken radiation machines.
The newspaper claims that when he was close to death, he was
prescribed Panado syrup instead of morphine because there was no stock.
I believe these things happen because little is done to
investigate these cases. And therefore the scale of this problem keeps
Anywhere in the world, when there is a plane accident, even
a slight one, it calls for a thorough investigation.
And the outcome is often that the misfortune often produces
critical messages for the industry. Then everybody in the industry learns how
to do their jobs more safely.
The state of South African public hospitals is far deadlier.
Mistakes such as the one that killed Fine are a daily occurrence throughout
But these mistakes go largely unnoticed by the country’s
politicians, and it looks like the medical community rarely learns from them.
Politicians take an oath that they will serve the country
truthfully. But on their job they soon soak up another tacit rule: to neglect
the errors of other civil servants.
The hospital’s bad behaviour is massive. Old aged patients
are admitted and allegedly left to die because nurses claim “they are going to
It does not have to be this way. A new generation of public
hospitals needs to try to ensure that our health-care system does not cause
people to die but saves their lives.
I encountered a disturbing closed-door culture at two of
government’s facilities I recently visited. When you complain about bad
service, you are going to be given a run around, the worst service and might
even not be assisted.
This is bad and sad at the same time. During the apartheid
era, you knew that the white person behind the counter could be rude to you and
you conditioned yourself. But now the black person behind the counter does not
want to help you at all.
What do you do about that?
I hope that after Mangaung President Jacob Zuma will bring a
new cadre of political leaders that will address these issues quite seriously
and try to solve them.
*Mzwandile Jacks is a freelance journalist. The view expressed are his own.