#People: Face to face with Jack Bloom

#People: Face to face with Jack BloomJack Bloom. Pic by Thom Pierce
Jack Bloom. Pic by Thom Pierce

First off, Democratic Alliance shadow health MEC Jack Bloom refuses to visit a hospital during our interview. ‘That would appear like an election gimmick,’ he says, over the phone. ‘No, you can interview me at home.’

Now in his 25th year on the Gauteng Provincial Legislature, Bloom (58) appears to have seen his share of political skulduggery, and evidently knows what pitfalls to avoid.

Indeed, his ‘Don’t Forget the Forgotten’ campaign had its detractors, those dismissing it as ‘poverty tourism’. The campaign – dubbed ‘Jack in a Shack’ by the Daily Sun – saw him spending the night in a township around Gauteng once a month from 2011 to 2014.

In 2015, Bloom published a chronicle of the experience called Thirty Nights In a Shack. In the book, he notes the late Helen Suzman’s motto ‘Go see for yourself’ as his inspiration. In addition, he writes: ‘It is unclear who first said this, but it has merit: “I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.”’

We are seated on a porch outside Bloom’s home in Cyrildene, in eastern Johannesburg. The family dog just escaped, and he’s got a nervous eye trained on the gate. Meanwhile, Bloom is scrolling on his smartphone, brow furrowed in consternation. He has received photographs of body parts discovered in a laundry room at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, nicknamed Joburg Gen.

‘I got a phone call,’ he says. ‘I said to her “send me what you got”, and she sent me these awful pictures. Apparently the cleaners are in great distress because they’re finding dead babies in the linen. It seems to be almost daily. They found a half-formed foetus, and body parts. It needs investigation; why is it not disposed off as medical waste? And I mean, if a foetus is over 24 weeks old, they need to be given to the family to bury.’

Bloom adds that he wrote to the hospital’s CEO, Gladys Bogoshi, with the pictures, but that she did not reply.

A thunderstorm hangs in the air and rain drops are starting to bullet down. Fortunately the dog returns; Bloom shuts the gate and we go inside to his study. Here, every conceivable space is covered in books and thick, brimming folders; on a desk, his laptop perches precariously on a pile of papers.

This is Bloom’s childhood home. His parents Hyman and Tzippa are in the front room. He attended nearby Athlone Boys High School, where notable alumni include George Bizos and Sol Kerzner. Bloom holds BA and Honours degrees in industrial psychology from Wits University, and an MBA from Wits too. He is also presently completing a PhD in ancient Jewish history.

Jack Bloom. Pic by Thom Pierce

Leaning back in a deep chair, Bloom gestures at his phone on the arm rest. ‘This is my office,’ he says. ‘It’s how I do my job. People tip me off; journalists have my number on speed dial. I have all these sources, from going out and speaking to people. Once they have your number and they trust you, they get in touch.’

He pauses to rub his beard. He has the demeanour of someone whose head is brimful – of having to carefully unravel his thoughts before articulating them in order. When he gets passionate, he repeats himself.

‘I always feel obliged to do something,’ he says. ‘The worst is when people send pictures. I mean, I had a lady sending me pictures of her diabetic husband. Doctors kept on amputating him, his foot then his leg, and it didn’t heal, and she kept sending me pictures as more and more of him was being amputated.’

Bloom shifts his feet, crossing them the other way. His shoes are black leather, recently polished. Over a pastel blue button shirt, his fleece top with the legislature logo is unzipped.

‘But no, the worst, the absolute worst is people who can’t get onto kidney dialysis,’ he continues. ‘I mean, I don’t know what to say to them. Afterall, this is life or death. They say to me their kidneys are failing, can I do something? This one man went to court in Durban, saying he needs kidney dialysis. They ruled against him, he collapsed in court and died soon after. The reality is, resources are limited. My feeling is there need to be objective criteria: age, health, eligibility. I mean you will remember the case of Mantu Tshabalala-Msimang who seemed to skip the queue for a liver transplant. It’s got to be fair. So that’s personally distressing because I don’t know how to respond to these people. Because really, they’re not going to live long without the treatment, they will die terrible deaths.’

He sits back in his chair, eyes sweeping out the window.

His 25 years as Gauteng shadow health MEC is perhaps ironic, given his natural predilection to avoid hospitals. Elected to the legislature in 1994, Bloom says he landed the health portfolio quite by fluke.

‘The Democratic Party had only five seats back then,’ he recalls. ‘Ian Davidson was the leader, and he gave me health. I wasn’t particularly happy about it actually, as I don’t really like going to doctors, not to mention dental visits. To be honest, I find hospitals places I’d rather not be, you know. I mean people are sick and distressed, hospitals make me uneasy.’

Cancer treatment in particular strikes a raw nerve, as Bloom’s elder brother Ivor succumbed to the disease in 2010.

‘The horror of chemo and cancer is near to me,’ he says. ‘I mean my brother died of cancer. He had a really tough time with chemotherapy. I know how stressful the whole thing is, how time is of the essence. Look, two weeks ago, I get a hysterical call from a woman, she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. Now Helen Joseph Hospital actually has a decent breast cancer unit, but the machine is broken. So I corresponded with the CEO of the hospital, I said: “What’s going on?” I mean, cancer is always stressful but if you’re going to have broken machines, queues and waiting times, that’s so much worse. Some hospital CEOs I can message, some I can’t, some block me. We have some really sterling, conscientious CEOs, and some I just can’t get anywhere with.’

At the legislature, Bloom is known to pack a punch against corruption and what he calls ‘dysfunction’. In 2014, he famously ripped up his e-toll bills at the Gauteng State of the Province address.

‘I’ve brought down three MECs: Brian Hlongwa, Qedani Mahlangu, and Humphrey Mmemezi,’ he says, voice rising with enthusiasm. ‘With Mmemezi, that whistleblower was very cagey. I had to go to a garage at the Eastgate mall in the middle of the night to get documents; real cloak and dagger stuff. I’ve often had anonymous envelopes under my door at the legislature. You have to be careful with whistleblowers, though. Some of them want to get revenge on a co-worker, they may have an axe to grind; some are cranks. I always say: “I need documents”. Well, I think I have become the go-to corruption guy.’

Bloom’s first inkling of the heartbreaking Esidimeni tragedy, which saw 144 Gauteng psychiatric patients die after being transferred to inadequate facilities, was a tip-off, too.

‘In mid 2015, I got an anonymous tip-off that MEC Qedani Mahlangu was going to cancel the Esidimeni contract. So I put questions to the MEC. At this stage I connected with Section 27 and the SA Depression and Anxiety Group ; well, civil society. People were calling me, saying their family members were being discharged. In November 2015, I told the MEC in the legislature: “This is a colossal mistake, a looming disaster. Please reconsider.” She was warned in explicit terms, but went ahead. By September 2016, I’d heard there had been deaths, this was the first time I could ask questions again, so I asked the MEC: “Had there been deaths, and how many?” She said 36. This to me was enormous. She should have resigned right there and then. She took it very casually though, claiming the deaths were from natural causes. That got a lot of media attention, and health minister Aaron Motsoaledi stepped in, appointing health ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba to investigate. I have to give Aaron credit for that, but he should have acted far sooner.’

Bloom adds that at present, 15 of the Esidimeni patients are still unaccounted for.

Faced with a daily barrage of dysfunction and sick people, how does he manage to not despair?

‘I feel for people. You have to distance yourself a bit,’ he says, voice growing softer. ‘I’ve always been very driven, I’ve always liked to get things done.’

Off the political stage, he enjoys archaeology. ‘Two years ago I was in Greece, Santorini; I love walking around ancient cities, imagining what life there must have been like,’ he says. ‘I’ve been to Israel a few times, to the off the beaten track sites. Also Machu Picchu, and this one time I ran up a Mayan pyramid, despite my fear of heights.’

Bloom is reluctant to divulge personal detail. Instead, he points at his book, Thirty Nights In a Shack, in which he penned some intimate thoughts.

In the last chapter he describes how in 2011, a year after his brother’s death, he was falling apart. He was angry. He notes how anger at injustice had motivated him to become a politician in the first place; adding, however, that in mature leadership anger must be contained.

That year, a sequence of events saw him return to his religious roots. He quotes Rabbi David Masinter, director of Chabad House in South Africa, telling him at the time: ‘Everything in this world happens for a reason, and one’s task is to bring light where there is darkness.’

In the final pages of his book, Bloom relays a story on starfish: A young boy is picking up starfish stranded on a beach, throwing them back into the sea. But there are thousands of starfish, and he is asked about the futility of trying to save them. The boy’s reply, as he rescues another starfish is: ‘For this one, it makes a difference.’

Inside his study, Bloom smooths back his hair before posing for photographs. It is a dim afternoon with rain drops now pelting the window. But behind his spectacles Bloom’s eyes are bright.