NHI Lawmakers: Interview with FF Plus MP Philip van Staden

NHI Lawmakers: Interview with FF Plus MP Philip van StadenPhilip van Staden, FF Plus MP and member of Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Health. PHOTO: Pierre Wheeler
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Philip van Staden does not mince his words. As the Freedom Front Plus’ lone MP in Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Health, he is known to be vocal, often pelting the health minister and health department officials with questions. In his view, “The ANC [African National Congress] government must be removed to enable state hospitals to once again offer effective service delivery and exceptional quality.”

Van Staden says he is recovering from prostate cancer surgery performed at Mediclinic Panorama last month. During the interview, he shifts in his seat. “Patients are paying with their lives and this is what’s making me mad,” he says, speaking over Zoom from his home in the Parliamentary Village, Acacia Park.

The 47-year-old politician got stuck in Cape Town after being diagnosed with cancer around the same time as the opening of Parliament on February 10. His wife Sumaré and their six-year-old daughter have since traveled from the family’s home in Bergtuin in Tshwane to support him in Cape Town during his recovery. He will know in August whether the operation was a success.

“I’ve got a medical aid,” says Van Staden. “I mean, all members of Parliament are on medical aid. So I could go to any hospital and get help quick. Still, it was a long process. I was diagnosed in February and the operation took place on the 12th of May. But I was wondering to myself, a patient who doesn’t have a medical aid, who must go to a state hospital where he’s diagnosed with cancer and he says, listen, you must treat me now for my cancer. You must help me, please. And they say, sorry, we don’t have chemo, we don’t have medicine, we can’t help you.”

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‘Don’t make empty promises’

Twisting his wedding band on his finger, Van Staden continues: “That’s why I’m saying the ANC is making me very mad. Don’t tell people you will give them the best medical service and so forth and you cannot provide it, because you couldn’t provide it in the past 27 years. Don’t build castles and dreams for patients when you can’t supply what you are promising. That is what makes me so furious about this government.”

As a member of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Health, one of Van Staden’s key tasks is to partake in deliberations on the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill. As a permanent committee member, Van Staden (for the FF Plus) has one vote. The IFP and EFF also have one vote each, the DA has two votes, and the ANC has the majority with six votes. This voting power is important for important matters, such as the NHI Bill.

In the 2014 national and provincial elections, Van Staden was elected member of the Gauteng Legislature
In the 2014 national and provincial elections, Van Staden was elected member of the Gauteng Legislature. PHOTO: Supplied

On May 18, the committee met to consider a motion of desirability of the bill, which means they had to decide if the committee will go ahead with the bill. Reflecting on the voting process that day, he says, “There were seven members voting in favour of the bill, which was the ANC, and the Inkatha Freedom Party [IFP],” says Van Staden. “And then four members who voted against the bill, which was myself, two members of the DA [Democratic Alliance], and one member of the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters]. The vote from the EFF is very interesting, them going against the ANC.”

Van Staden lifts the Government Gazette containing the 60-page bill up in front of him. So far, the document has sparked some 358 000 feedback submissions from people and various organisations around the country.

“So, the ANC is very adamant to get this law on the books,” says Van Staden. “Of course, they are pushing an agenda. The NHI Bill is actually the biggest action from the ANC since 1994 – to nationalise the private health sector. You must understand their promise to their voters: you’re going to get adequate healthcare, adequate clinics, adequate hospitals. The problem is we have seen over the past 27 years, since 1994, the ANC hasn’t even kept existing infrastructure intact.”

picture of parliament/ national legislature
The National Assembly. PHOTO: GCIS

‘One day I’ll be there’

Van Staden attended Voortrekker Eeufees Primary School and Pretoria Noord High School, where he matriculated in 1994. He relays how, from the age of seven, he would sit watching the opening of Parliament on television every year, telling his parents: “One day I’ll be there.” His ambition was quelled in 1993 when he was 17, when his father passed away, leaving no money for tertiary education.

“I had to be the man in the house and help my mother,” says Van Staden. “In matric already, I’d been working in various places like the Pick n Pay to get some money. Then I thought, well let’s start a business. I drew up a plan and went to every single bank in South Africa. No one wanted to give me a loan because I didn’t have a credit record. I mean, I just came out of school. So I decided to start my own businesses with zero rand, and I did. I was a jack of all trades. Property, the motor industry… Actually, I made a lot of money.”

Van Staden says that from the party’s inception in 1994, the politics of the FF Plus (then the Freedom Front) resonated with him. He turned to full-time politics in 2006. “I saw how people were starting to struggle under the policies of the ANC,” he says. “And I said to myself, I’m going to help these communities. And that’s why I started with sector policing and as chairperson of the [Westmoot] ratepayers’ association for the suburbs of Mountain View, Suiderberg, Booysens, Claremont, Daspoort, Pretoria Gardens, and Roseville. In 2011, I was elected to the Tshwane Metro Council for the FF Plus, where I had [the] power to help those communities.”

The Life Esidimeni inquest started on 19 July. PHOTO: Joyrene Kramer

In the 2014 national and provincial elections, Van Staden was elected member of the Provincial Legislature [MPL] for the FF Plus in Gauteng, where he would serve until 2019. While on the legislature’s Portfolio Committee on Roads and Transport, it was health issues that stirred his passion.

“We started fighting about health in the Gauteng Legislature when I wasn’t even on the health portfolio,” he recalls. “In 2014, I received a complaint from parents about their child at Mamelodi Hospital, which is a state hospital [in Tshwane]. And I attended to the complaint, but that patient died a week later, because the MEC at that stage, Qedani Mahlangu, didn’t attend to my complaint. I had to stand up in the legislature, in the house, to say to the speaker that the MEC didn’t attend to my complaint, and that night the patient died. So there I realised we have a big problem in hospitals. After that, I started digging into why this situation in our hospitals is happening. Then there was the Life Esidimeni Tragedy [the deaths of 144 people at Gauteng psychiatric facilities in 2016, from causes including starvation and neglect].”

Recalling his time in the Gauteng legislature in the wake of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, he says, “So I started taking part in health debates in the legislature, asking questions. That was a terrible time for health and when I came to Parliament in 2019, I said I want to be on the health portfolio committee because here I can have [the] power to help people in the state hospitals, by tackling government and that’s why I am on the health portfolio today.”

Philip van Staden was elected to national Parliament in 2019.
Philip van Staden was elected to national Parliament in 2019. PHOTO: Supplied

Elected as an MP in 2019, the party deployed him to serve on the Portfolio Committee on Health. He says his questions in the National Assembly are informed by public complaints he receives from patients at state hospitals, plus research that he does himself. “I’m doing my own research,” he says. “My PA is not doing my research. My secretary is not doing my research. I’m doing my own research and I’m writing my own speeches.”

He elaborates on the complaints. “The number one complaint I’m getting is this – patients who don’t get food, who haven’t eaten in five days. A patient supposed to go into theatre, who doesn’t go into theatre. So for five days, that patient is laying there without food.

“The second one is: a patient laying there who has been attended to, operated on, but who doesn’t receive any medication, except for Panados. So when you go into the matter, you find out that the hospital doesn’t actually have medication. Then you jump on the MEC and the MEC jumps on the HOD of the hospital, and somehow, they get medication for that patient.

“The other big complaints we usually also get are about infrastructure in the hospitals. There’s no toilet paper, there’s no water, there’s no soap, there’s no clean linen. Last Friday, I received a complaint from Steve Biko [Academic] Hospital in Pretoria, where they had admitted a patient, and the patient was put in a tent in front of the building. I started to ask questions, but this patient died, unfortunately.”

Van Staden says the patient had stage 4 cancer and was admitted to Steve Biko on May 22 where she was put in a tent due to an “unavailability of beds”. The patient was also deaf-mute. “I am busy drawing up questions for the minister of health regarding this matter,” he says.

Van Staden says he serves on the health portfolio committee because it gives him the power to help people especially those depending on the public health sector. PHOTO: Supplied

Riding on the same ship

Does somebody have to be a member of the FF Plus to ask for his help? “No, anybody can approach me,” says Van Staden. “I’m helping a person because it’s my duty as a member of Parliament to do that. So any person or any patient at a hospital who has a problem can phone or WhatsApp me. Then I send back a little questionnaire of ten questions because I need the information of a patient – your ID number, what bed are you in, what ward, who is your doctor currently? And when I see what province the hospital is in, then I immediately contact the MEC or his or her PA directly, immediately, to say, listen, I received this complaint.”

Responding to a question on perceptions that the FF Plus might be a racist party, he says: “No, the Freedom Front Plus is not a racist party. I mean, we’ve got brown members on the provincial legislatures. We’ve got brown members in municipal councils. We had black people who were running for us as candidates in the last election, and in the 2019 election.”

He adds: “I will disregard such a statement completely. The thing is, as South Africans, we are all riding on the same ship. If this ship is sinking, all of us will sink together – whether you are white, brown, black, pink, or purple. And that’s our fight against the ANC government. Things can’t go on like this.”

Reflecting on his work ethic, Van Staden says: “I worked my way up in business, and I worked my way up in politics. I’m a very hard worker. I’m actually a workaholic. I’m a person who is very committed. If I commit myself to something, I will give my whole life to that.”

He adds: “I must say I am living my dream, the dream I had as a child. And I think I am very fortunate to be able to do that.”

*This article is part of Spotlight’s NHI lawmakers’ series. We previously interviewed the current health committee chair Dr Kenneth Jacobs (ANC) and committee member Magdalene Hlengwa (IFP) as well as the current health spokesperson for the DA, Michele Clarke. We’ve also interviewed former committee chair Dr Sibongeseni Dhlomo (ANC) and former committee member Siviwe Gwarube (DA). Despite various attempts, we have so far been unable to secure an interview with a committee member from the EFF.