Dear Premier Zamani Saul, the Northern Cape health system is in your hands.
Dear Premier Zamani Saul
You have certainly made a great start to your tenure as the newly minted fifth Premier of the Northern Cape. A country, thirsty for good news and ethical leadership has embraced your messages of activist leadership and people have been sharing posts and article links across social media platforms.
You have among others undertaken to not buy new cars for yourself and your executive, but to rather invest in new ambulances. How can such news not be welcomed!
By accepting your appointment as Premier, you have become the custodian of a rough diamond. It is now in your hands whether it will reach its full potential and become a sparkling gem or remain a dusty stone. For too long your home province has been neglected and discarded, an orphan province that despite its size, beauty, uniqueness and presence was discarded and used as a playground for the corrupt and immoral.
The unique people and the breathtaking nature of this province have for very long suffered under a debilitating drought in big parts and a health system that only exists in name. Your health system is an empty shell of buildings that resemble ghost structures, either with no staff or staff so overworked and overburdened that their hospitals are death traps. Patients have been rejected and failed by a health system that mostly exists in name.
You may rightfully question who we are to make such damning statements. Perhaps a little context with be useful. Last year Spotlight, an editorially independent publication of the Treatment Action Campaign and SECTION27, turned our searchlight on your province. We were keen to understand what the state of your province’s health system was – the good, the bad and the ugly. Our experience in other provinces has been that we often will find deeply disturbing challenges but amidst the collapse or problems, we will find places that buck the trend where health workers are finding innovative ways to deliver health services. In the Northern Cape there is a sense of resignation, pockets of health workers are trying to keep the health system afloat, but far too many who spoke to us had either left, were about to leave or did not know how long they could continue carrying an impossibly heavy burden.
There is no doubt that you have by now been briefed on the state of your province’s healthcare system by all kinds of advisors and officials and you have already indicated that you would be occupying a corner office at Kimberley’s Robert Sobukwe Hospital (did you know the name change has not been officially communicated to staff?) to hear complaints from patients. However, we wish to caution you that there is a very real danger that you will spend your time putting out fires instead of dealing with the deep systemic problems.
Spotlight has for many months, since last year, been researching the health system in the Northern Cape, reading the scant information that is available and trying to speak to as many people as possible. We visited many health facilities in the Northern Cape, in small towns such as Keimoes, Fraserburg and Sutherland and larger epicentres such as Upington and Kimberley.
After five months of trying to engage officials in your health department to afford them an opportunity to respond to our list of questions or simply to understand their challenges, we published a series of articles without them answering one, single question. It is hard to understand if they simply did not have the answers or they have become so arrogant that they do not believe they are accountable to anyone.
During our work we identified many common themes and challenges and as you chart the course of your term in office, we thought it may be useful to humbly share some of our observations and findings:
- There are critical doctor and nurse shortages in the province and you are even losing the ones that are still employed. Doctors and nurses who have left told us that the health department made no effort to convince them to stay. Once we published our articles we received several heartbreaking letters from doctors and nurses who told us they had been desperate to work in the Northern Cape, but they were messed around so much they had to give up. One of these doctors, was one of your own who had been selected to go and train in Cuba only to return with no prospect of a job.
- There are often no ambulances to deal with emergencies with the few vehicles that were still in running order mostly used to ferry patients to Upington and Kimberley. However, many of the ambulances that do respond to trauma or life-threatening situations are not equipped to deal with the emergency, in fact they cannot even stabilize or transport a patient. As you add sparkling new ambulances to the fleet, we do hope that this will be coupled with a serious campaign to recruit intermediate and advanced life support paramedics. Premier, you speak passionately about rooting out corruption. You may want to pose serious questions around the awarding of the aeromedical ambulance service contract in the Northern Cape which has gone to a company that by all accounts failed to conduct outreach services in the province when it had the previous contract. It makes complete sense to bring back the excellent outreach services similar to those that the Red Cross Air Mercy Service offered from 1996 to 2012, in such a vast and sparsely populated province with a dire shortage of specialists.
- The Northern Cape is a province of ghost “hospitals” with many downgraded to Community Health Centres, which is just a fancy term for hospitals with no doctors. Hospitals are functioning with skeleton staff or no staff. Many family members are forced to care for the sick and dying in your facilities. The story of the Kimberley Mental Health Hospital is well-known. A visit to this facility reveals beautiful, uninhabited buildings with weeds already taking over everywhere, some parts in need of maintenance already. It is utterly heartbreaking to see such a monument to corruption and endless spending still not functional in a province that has such massive mental health challenges and almost no services to meet the need. Key hospital such as Dr Harry Surtie in Upington, De Aar hospital and Robert Sobukwe in Kimberley have severe staff shortages with health workers and patients who spoke to Spotlight claiming the hospitals have high death rates. Patients are fearful of being referred to these hospitals saying too many people return home in coffins.
- The province has a slew of vacancies and political appointments in the healthcare system with very little evidence that there have been serious attempts to attract qualified people. We have information of administrative appointments made based on political affiliations and people without the proper qualifications being appointed or administrators being appointed at facilities without there being vacancies or communication with facility managers.
- There are question marks over the appointment of the Head of Department Dr Steven Jonkers. The province failed to produce the advertisement for the job when asked. At the time of his appointment to the health department Jonkers was reportedly facing charges of corruption. Premier Saul, if you are serious about cleaning up, you need to investigate the appointment of this HOD.
- Basic medical supplies, drugs, food and stationary are often out of stock in facilities.
- Many primary Health Care clinics are virtually non-operational. Around Kakamas and Keimoes, several primary healthcare clinics such as Augrabies, Alheit, Marchand and Lutzburg had patients sitting outside when we went there, waiting for a nurse to arrive, hours after the clinics were supposed to open. It is undignified.
Premier, our experience has been that the Northern Cape government couldn’t care less about accountability. We truly hope this will change as you take office.
Our experience over the last six months is that there was very little effort by those in power in the Northern Cape to show any accountability. For several months, our efforts to elicit any comment, explanation or meetings with the then MEC, her advisor, the head of department or any other people in decision making positions came to nothing. We would continuously try to contact those in the communication positions and despite reading our messages no response was forthcoming. All questions or requests via the media office or the HOD’s office were simply ignored. Almost 70 questions were sent to the MEC, the HOD and the head of Communications at end of 2018. These questions were resent in early 2019 with several follow-ups. There was no effort to engage or answer the questions .
Premier Saul, you have made some truly impressive and heartening statements and commitments and have already fulfilled some of your promises. It is wonderful to see that some of these actions involved the healthcare system. However, we will be watching you closely.
Your health system is in the Intensive Care Unit on a ventilator. You cannot afford to waste any more time. Delays lead to the deaths of the poor people in your province. The people who look to you to make their lives better, to save their lives.
You quoted a poem titled Courage in your inaugural address.
One part reads:
To map out a course of action
And follow it to the end
Requires of the same courage
That a soldier needs.
Yes, Premier Saul you are going to need a lot of courage to overhaul your broken health system. We wish you much courage. Going forward, you will need to look into the eyes of the desperate in the Northern Cape who have been holding on or working hard with so much courage despite the impossible odds stacked against them.
Yours in the struggle for better health
The Spotlight Team