PR and platitudes
By Ufrieda Ho
It’s ‛good governance’ week for the Public Protector’s office at the beginning of October and officials are going through the motions of holding a community meeting in Vosloorus. The meeting is however, already running over an hour behind schedule.
The delay, representatives from the office say, is because a team has been dispatched to do a spot
inspection of the beleaguered Thelle Mogoerane Hospital (formerly Natalspruit), the regional hospital in the south of Vosloorus.
The crowds that have been gathering in the community hall are patient because they want officials to return to finally validate their complaints, to see for themselves what community members who rely on this facility have been complaining about for years.
Thelle Mogoerane Hospital has been singled out for being in shambles for years due to severe staff shortages, negligence from nurses and doctors and bad attitudes from staff. Complaints also include sick people waiting for four or five hours to be attended to, and patients being left on stretchers in corridors for hours before they are seen by a doctor.
The Treatment Action Campaign’s National Women’s Representative, Portia Serobe, says the TAC’s protests outside the Thelle Mogoerane Hospital at the end of September were successful in putting the problems at the hospital on the radar.
‛We can claim this meeting taking place here in Vosloorus as a victory for TAC, but we still need answers, we still need solutions because every day we hear new cases of patients who are ill-treated, and it’s not just this hospital, it’s across the East Rand,’ says Serobe.
The hospital, though, continues to make headlines for the wrong reasons. The Democratic Alliance early this year reported that there was a staff shortage of 382 members at Thelle Mogoerane. The Department of Health, in answering the opposition’s questions, confirmed that staff had been lost because of being overburdened and because of transport problems getting to and from work.
The TAC continues to report on understaffing, unsanitary conditions, the long delays in providing treatment, and negligence.
According to the numbers provided in March this year from the Gauteng Department of Health, the hospital was down to 1,683 staff members. There were 198 nursing vacancies, 87 vacancies in administration and 46 vacancies for doctors.
The DA also noted the long waiting times for patients to be attended to, even in high priority emergency cases, and a failure from management to plot a turnaround strategy.
Back at the Vosloorus community meeting, the minutes tick by and the crowd (about 200 that have gathered since the morning) is still waiting for the meeting to begin.
Finally, the officials take their spots on the stage. The Public Protector’s office staff are joined by other government officials including those from the Master of the Court and the Department of Health.
Each person has time to give a speech. They say little that’s enlightening or specific to the concerns of this community, little that is not a regurgitated bureaucratic line, or an outline of mandates. The officials give out cellphone numbers and numbers for complaint hotlines and they speak about processes and procedures to have complaints dealt with.
The truth, say TAC activists, is that many calls go unanswered and even when complaints are successfully laid, they are seldom dealt with. More often, they’re simply noted and recorded with a reference number.
Then the officials who have returned from the spot inspection at Thelle Mogoerane say they will not be reporting back that day; they will go away and investigate further. The disappointment in the crowd is tangible.
As the TAC activists point out later, the officials say nothing about committing to a timeframe for a future gathering. They don’t talk about a plan of action or consequences for facilities that keep on failing. They don’t talk about a remedy to anyone’s problems – problems that cost lives.
At the end of the meeting there is, however, opportunity to hear a few public testimonies, and people insist on speaking up. As impotent as raising their concerns may seem, it feels like the closest thing they have to power. Yet, as important as it is to be heard, the more hardened activists seem aware that being heard is, in itself, not enough. In fact, there is a trap in thinking that, just because you told people about your problem, they will do anything about it.
Let the voices by heard
In July this year, the taxi Gloria Mnguni (49) was travelling in was involved in an accident. She hit
her forehead in the crash and suffered injuries to her leg, and was taken to Thelle Mogoerane Hospital.
‛It was about 7 pm when we got to the Thelle Mogoerane Hospital. At 11 pm I was still waiting. By then my son had come to meet me at the hospital. When he tried to intervene, the doctor came but he all he did was ask me questions like if I had been vomiting, and then he said I didn’t have problem and I would be fine. They didn’t take X-rays or anything, they just gave me some pills and didn’t tell me if they were pain pills, or what,’ she says.
But days later she didn’t feel fine. Her head was throbbing, her neck was stiff, she had severe headaches and her leg was swollen and painful.
Mnguni returned to the hospital but now she was told there was no record of her being at the hospital or the accident ever happening. She had no file, she was told.
‛The nurses don’t wear their name tags so that you can’t complain about them,’ she says.
Mnguni was given injections for the pain and sent home. Two and half months later she still shuffles when she walks, and says her neck still gives her trouble. She starts to cry out of sheer frustrations at having to deal with the pain and the indignity of being treated so dismissively by hospital staff.
‛I’m the breadwinner for my three children, but now I can’t even do my piece job,’ she says through her tears.
‛They don’t respect patients, especially the elderly,’ says Agnes Banda (53) of the Thelle Mogoerane Hospital staff.
Banda’s neighbour, Sipho Radebe, was involved in a car accident in the middle of September. The
Vosloorus man was admitted to the hospital and admitted for a week, she says. He had to bring his own blankets because the hospital didn’t have enough bedding. He also complained about pain in his ribs but was never given a single X-ray, she says.
Radebe was discharged after a week but just days after he returned home, he died. The family still don’t know what he died from. No one from the hospital has spoken to them.
The family has also not been able to get Radebe’s blankets and personal belongings back from the hospital, says Banda.
‛They don’t care about the family of the deceased. They don’t talk nicely to people or try to explain anything. How can it be that the man’s belongings can be stolen from a hospital? How can it be that you don’t know why their family member is dead?
‛The attitude of the nurses at Thelle Mogoerane must change. It’s not good enough,’ she says.