NHI Lawmakers: Face to face with IFP MP Magdalene Hlengwa
Inside her office at Parliament’s Marks Building, Magdalena Hlengwa points at her ankles. “Look at my feet, they are swollen,” she says. “It is from all of the flights.”
Hlengwa, a Member of Parliament for the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), serves on the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Health. The committee is traveling around South Africa to hold public hearings on the proposed National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill. She returned to Cape Town from KwaZulu-Natal the day before our interview and is set to depart for the Eastern Cape the day after.
Aged 68, Hlengwa is a great-grandmother to two boys. Smiling shyly, she relays how, on her birthday – November 21 – the entire National Assembly sang to her.
Taking her oath as an MP on May 22 had been Hlengwa’s debut foray into national politics. Before that she worked as a teacher, a school principal, and later as a gender desk activist for NATU, the National Teacher’s Union.
Behind her desk at Parliament, she is engulfed in a large leather-backed chair. To her right, on a stack of papers and books, sits a small container of Grand-Pa headache tablets.
Her work pace might be gruelling, but Hlengwa does not complain.
“It was a pleasure for me to go to all of these places,” she says. “It was an eye opener to see where the voters come from, down to the poorest of the poor. These people have not heard about anything. They don’t even know who they are voting for. They just vote. And they were very happy to see people visiting them from government (sic). Especially in Namaqualand in the Northern Cape – they said they last saw people from government in 1994, Hlengwa says.
“They were very poor. So poor, I could see the poverty in their eyes. These people have nothing. When our chairperson (Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo) talks about NHI, they all say yes because of their poverty. They don’t know the disadvantages of NHI.”
Hlengwa adds that the IFP backs the main argument for NHI – “to address inequality between public and private medical services, and to ensure similar health standards for all South Africans”. But, in practice, she says “they don’t see the bill work as it stands.
“As the IFP, we are very much concerned about the community, the entire community, the whole of South Africa,” she says. “The IFP is saying, yes in principle NHI is good, but in practicality we don’t see it work. Where will this huge amount of money come from? Secondly, we are very worried about the board which will be appointed by the health minister. The board that will look after all of this money.”
In front of her on a printed sheet, she had prepared a list of hard-hitting questions relating to NHI. The list reads: “How will NHI ensure that the services of skilled medical professionals are retained in this country? Will specialists not leave South Africa because of lower income potential? How will NHI address the current shortage of doctors and nurses? How will the NHI be funded? How will government ensure that NHI does not just become another avenue for corruption? What about traditional leaders – how will NHI create a space for traditional leaders? How will NHI ensure South Africa does its own medical innovation and does not just wait for expensive medicines to be supplied by the west? How will NHI attract medical professionals to South Africa. How will NHI ensure that hospitals and clinics do not run out of medicine as we see at so many of our hospitals today.”
She nods. “These are the questions people should ask. There could be answers. But there is a big ‘but’, because we don’t think NHI will achieve this.”
Family and the nation
Hlengwa was born in 1951, in the sugar cane flanked town of Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal’s Mthonjaneni district. “My mother was from the Biyela tribe,” she says. “I grew up with this people of Biyela, strong humble people, who made me who I am. We were an ordinary family – my father working on the railway, my mother a housewife. My grandfather and grandmother were farmers.”
After matriculating at Masibumbane High School in nearby Ulundi, she trained as a nurse at Melmoth’s St Mary’s kwaMagwaza Hospital. Two years later, in 1974, she married Dalton Hlengwa. At the time, her new family did not approve of her working night-shifts as a nurse. So, she retrained as a teacher in maths and science. Later she would go on to become principal of Zalizwi Primary School in Ulundi from 1998 until 2011.
“For me there will always be a passion in health,” says Hlengwa. “As this was my first profession.”
Dalton passed away in 1984. The rest of Hlengwa’s family still lives in Ulundi: her daughter Jabulile, a clerk; her two grandchildren, Siphesihle, a civil engineer, and Siyabonga, a biochemist; and her two great grandsons from Siphesihle, Kuhlekonke (8) Prince Phathu Zulu (6).
“This is the tough part of being an MP,” she says. “The fact that your family is so far away. It’s tough because you’re looking after the nation, but you can’t see your own children.”
Next year, Kuhlekonke and Prince will move to Acacia Park – Cape Town’s Parliamentary village – to be with their great grandmother, who will keep a close watch on their education.
“The first one, Kuhlekonke, is very clever but shy, very fond of drawing,” says Hlengwa. “Prince, he is very clever too. At six years old he can do everything. I mean everything. But he is also shy. Like their mother, they are clever and shy. When their mother obtained 70% she would cry ‘No Gogo, I failed!’
“Yes, that one always had to obtain 90%. So, both boys are coming to live with me next year. I want to look after them. I am worried about their education. And I have picked their school already – they will go to Holy Cross nearby, it’s a Catholic school.”
Being from KwaZulu-Natal, Hlengwa shares roots with the Health Portfolio Committee’s chairperson, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, former MEC for Health in KwaZulu-Natal from 2009 until 2019.
Hlengwa notes how the province’s health system faltered under Dhlomo’s reign. In addition, she believes he is toeing the party line for the African National Congress (ANC) in his presiding capacity over the NHI Bill.
“When you are talking about KwaZulu-Natal, the health department in KwaZulu-Natal, it is in crisis,” she says. “All the hospitals are dilapidated now. There has been no innovation at the hospitals or clinics. Healthcare there was very bad under Dr Dhlomo; there was a lot of corruption – a lot. We did not see tangible things done with taxpayers’ money.
“In the NHI process, Dr Dhlomo will represent the ANC, he’s not representing the people,” she says. “Yes, it’s a problem because they are the majority party, and they are going to take advantage of that over our nation.”
Hlengwa is more optimistic in her appraisal of health minister Zweli Mkhize, KwaZulu-Natal’s former premier.
“Minister Mkhize, first of all, is intelligent,” she says. “I know that he is very intelligent and I know that he is very passionate about his work as a doctor, about the patient and the medicine. Our concern is Minister Mkhize having to also appoint the board members that manages the NHI fund. We don’t know the appointment criteria.”
“My concern is that there is a lot of corruption in our government. Nobody, and I mean nobody in this government is pure. That’s why I say my concern is this board, because there is a lot of corruption. There would be a lot of our money put in there – taxpayers’ money.”
Hlengwa says she hopes Mkhize will consider public submissions on the NHI, allowing it to inform amendments to existing legislation.
“If Minister Mkhize wants the truth of what the people are saying, down to the poorest, he must really listen to the whole group of us (the Health Portfolio Committee) because we all have notes from around the country. He should listen to what I, Mrs Hlengwa, writes from each province. He should look at all the public submissions we received. And then consolidate all those viewpoints, and then come up with a solution.”
Does she have faith in Mkhize to do that?
“Yes, he might do that,” says Hlengwa. “Minister Mkhize is a man of integrity.”
Public submissions on the NHI Bill closed at the end of November. The Bill is now in the hands of the portfolio committee, but Mkhize and the National Department should still have opportunities to help shape the Bill.
Asked for any additional thoughts, Hlengwa replies that she really hopes President Cyril Ramaphosa will include more women leaders when he next reshuffles his cabinet.
Women are good leaders
“He must put on more women,” she says. “Because there are good women leaders, even in the ANC. See, women can go out to the people, they can consult with the poor. Look at marriage. As a woman we do everything as managers and as leaders in our families. Women have got that spark that God gave us. Women can breastfeed, we can nurture. We can feed the whole country.”
Against Hlengwa’s wall a poster advertises an IFP march against gender-based violence.
On her bookshelf, titles include How to Communicate with Confidence, by Dr Mike Bechtle. “Yes, I have read that,” she says. “I had to learn new things for this job in Parliament. Like public speaking. I can now speak up, in front of all those people at the National Assembly.”
After the interview, Hlengwa beams. Despite sore ankles, there is a spring in her step.