The Eastern Cape provincial government has until 12 October to formulate a plan to fix the province’s faltering health services after the province’s new Head of Health, Dr. Thobile Mbengashe, accepted a memorandum in Bhisho on Friday.
About 1 000 people marched to Bhisho’s city centre to deliver the memorandum drafted by the Eastern Cape Health Crisis Coalition. Comprising of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Section27, unions and medical associations, the memorandum also demands that the provincial government improve budgeting and supply chain management and reviews its ambulance system.
Recently suspended COSATU secretary general, Zwelinzima Vavi, also appeared in support of the march in his personal capacity.
“We should ensure that every politician, government employee and civil society leader must be forced to use the public health system so that they can go through the same humiliation that our people are going through everyday,” said Vavi, who added that if politicians were made to use public hospitals, schemes like National Health Insurance would have been implemented in 1994.
“The people behind this mess continue to earn their big salaries and live in luxury,” he told Health-e. “They only go to a public hospital as visitors.”
The protest comes after the coalition released a high profile report on the state of Eastern Cape health systems on Wednesday. The report highlighted the lack of doctors, widespread and frequent shortages of medicines and equipment, and the poor conditions many of the province’s patients and healthcare workers deal with daily.
In accepting the memorandum, Mbengashe said he acknowledged his own role in improving provincial health care and that he would be taking his cue from the memorandum as he continued to settle into the second week of his new post.
But Eastern Cape Department of Health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said in a radio interview that many of the problems reported by the coalition were already being addressed and that the department had recently renovated more than 200 health facilities in the province.
However, TAC National Chairperson Anele Yawa has requested a list of renovated facilities.
The coalition’s report and protest may be just what the doctor ordered for the province, according to former MEC of Health in the Eastern Cape Dr Trudy Thomas, who was among the marchers.
According to Thomas, health in the province has deteriorated since 1994, largely due to huge cuts in funding and staff – and corruption.
“We were doing extremely well those first two or three years after 1994,” she told Health-e. “We were building clinics and hospitals, and it was really a gala time for health.”
Huge budget cuts in 1997 to help finance debt accrued under apartheid changed all that, she said.
“The image that always stays with me is that of a clinic we were building that just needed a roof,” she said. “(National government) cut the budget and eventually that clinic, which was almost finished, just crumbled to the ground.”
“When you start that kind of de-evolution, it increases exponentially,” she added.
“This protest … it’s the right sort of approach to turn the situation around – this is how we brought down apartheid,” she said. “You have to make people aware of the issues, people who usually wouldn’t have to think about them.”
Nomonde Tuse from East London has never been part of a protest march before, and usually doesn’t have to think about public health care because she can afford a medical aid, but decided to join the action.
A number of speakers said that the state of health services in the province was a disgrace to the legacies of the many anti-apartheid struggle leaders born in the province, including Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe. – Health-e News Service.
This article first appeared on September 16, 2013 in Health-e News