Face to face with North West Health MEC Madoda Sambatha

“Mr Fix It” is how North West Health MEC Madoda Sambatha hopes to become known, but there’s a long way to go before he can claim the moniker and he knows it.

North West Health MEC Madoda Sambatha

Problems in the province have piled up spectacularly in recent years. Just over a year ago the North West was brought to its knees with hospital strikes and violent service delivery riots. The strikes took place against the backdrop of a complex political tug-of-war between trade unions and factions in the ANC – all while various provincial government departments, including health, were under national administration because of severe inefficiencies and failures.

Sambatha (44) says it’s time for new rules of engagement with “a highly unionised sector”. He acknowledges that “a wedge has come between workers and departmental managers”.

“We need to have a different work culture and a different approach where it’s not about meeting every demand the workers want, but we don’t run away from engaging either. We must have peaceful co-existence whether we agree or disagree; we can’t wish each other away.”

But uncertainty remains

Despite strikes in the public healthcare sector in recent years, there is still not a definitive national ruling or guidelines on a minimum service level agreement when strikes happen.

“I don’t think that the two constitutional rights of the right to access to health and the right to strike should be pitted against each other. But we can’t allow people to block patients from getting into hospitals for medical treatment,” he says.

Sambatha was the chair of the portfolio committee on health and social development in the North West before he was axed by the controversial former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo in 2017. This was ostensibly over a questionable sign-off on a land deal – although there is speculation that he was a victim of internal ANC politics in the run-up to the party’s hotly contested December 2017 congress.

He is also the South African Communist Party’s regional secretary in the North West and a former mineworker who rose through the ranks of the National Union of Mineworkers in the mid-1990s.

Longstanding grievances

Sambatha says that various longstanding workers’ grievances in the province’s healthcare sector must be resolved. Key among these, he says, is the issue of outstanding performance assessments and unpaid performance bonus payments for the last three years.

“It has cost us about R5-million to catch up until 2018 and to make these pay-outs, but this is a step forward in compliance from the government’s side. It means we move closer to closing this grievance. It creates stability and responsibility for the employee and the employer.”

The MEC says the department intends in-sourcing security services as per national guidelines. This will be phased in over the next few years because in-sourcing doubles the bill for security.

“We will also be doing evaluations on all out-sourced services to see where we can cut costs. We have some private companies that were providing services to us that our own HR and corporate services should be doing,” he says.

The Mediosa and Buthelezi EMS scandals

Two high-profile scandals in the province’s health department in recent years relate to contracts with the Gupta-linked Mediosa, which was contracted to provide the province with mobile clinics, and Buthelezi EMS, a private ambulance service. Spotlight revealed in April 2017 that the province had misused funds earmarked for HIV to pay Buthelezi EMS and reported on allegations that Buthelezi EMS had dramatically overcharged the department. Contracts with Buthelezi EMS has since become the subject of National Treasury, Hawks, and most recently Special Investigating Unit investigations.

City Press reported in August on the Hawks’ arrest of former North West finance MEC Wendy Nelson on charges of fraud linked to her involvement in appointing head of department of health Thabo Lekalakala, who signed off the contract with Mediosa. Lekalakala was suspended but went to court and successfully contested his suspension. He has, however, subsequently been arrested on charges of fraud.

Sambatha says even though the dubious Mediosa contracts have been terminated, investigations are under way. Mediosa has been liquidated, and Sambatha intends pursuing avenues to recoup monies lost in these deals, so “we are sure we only paid for services rendered”.

The province has a dire shortage of ambulances. It needs 260 ambulances and only has 100. Sambatha has budgeted for 40 ambulances to be purchased every year; he also needs more competitive salaries to retain trained intermediate life support teams and a new dispatch system for provincial-level operations.

“We have to pay paramedics to stay. Every ambulance needs to have working communications systems with the control centre, a panic button and a tracker to stop attacks on paramedics and to stop the element of abuse,” he says.

Suspected corrupt officials suspended

Emerging from the Buthelezi and Mediosa scandals has made Sambatha take a dim view of how tenders and some procurement contracts have become “properly regulated corruption schemes”.

He says it has been a case of having to “make yourself known” to politicians and officials if you want to land a tender or a contract.

Sambatha says he has recently suspended senior officials who have been suspected of nepotism and offering jobs for sexual favours.

He also challenges government’s own inefficiencies that, according to him, have made procedure a red tape nightmare.

“Sometimes there is no logic. When you have to buy something you must source three quotations from preferred providers and you are told to take the cheapest but sometimes if you just go to retail you’ll get it even cheaper. Compliance can be wastage, it’s ticking a box while we are told that the South African economy needs to improve money circulation for enhanced economic participation,” he says.

He feels the same way about transversal tenders. He says some tenders that are prescribed nationally don’t stimulate local growth. As an example, he points to a hospital oxygen supplier who, in its tender, offered to train about 44 people. Sambatha considered this to be a win for skills training, job creation and localised procurement but couldn’t sign off on the tender because of transversal tender agreements.

Other changes he’s implementing include the ordering and delivery system for medical supplies. He says individual hospitals will be ordering supplies directly while clinics will continue to order through the medical depot to better manage stock levels. The MEC also wants revised delivery schedules to stop time and fuel wastage.

According to Sambatha, the moratorium on frozen posts has finally been lifted, allowing the department to advertise 3,000 posts for professional, clinical and support staff. He says they are at the halfway mark of filling these posts.

More public-private partnerships

The province also intends leaning more on public-private partnerships. Sambatha says the imbalance of overcrowded public and under-utilised private hospitals needs to be levelled out.

“I want to change the conditions of licensing of private facilities so that we can offload patients there and they will charge us at government rates to treat these patients.

He says these partnerships offers an alternative to simply building more facilities that will ultimately not have staff to run them properly.

The MEC will also focus on a campaign of health, diet and exercise for the province and believes people should work to stay well.

Maybe more difficult than getting people to exercise and change to healthier diets, however, will be to undo the culture of corruption distrust that seems to have become pervasive in the province.

He’s determined to rebuild that public trust, which is why he’s making surprise appearances at clinics and hospitals throughout the province.

“Every week I take three visits and arrive unannounced. Then I introduce myself and ask to see the facility,” he says.

“I knew the level of rot before I came to this office so I can’t say that things are okay now because I am the MEC,” says Sambatha. “I want to be a Mr Fix-It, I’m not running away.”


Strike terrifies mental health patients in North West

A group of workers staged a strike at Witrand psychiatric hospital in Potchefstroom trashing several sections in the facility and terrifying mental health patients.
A source told Spotlight that the strike started yesterday and that patients, some who have been at the institution for 20 years and know no other home, were traumatised by the violent behaviour from some protestors.
Information shared with Spotlight claimed that among others the kitchen was trashed and food strewn all over the floor, offices were damaged with furniture overturned and files thrown on the floor and corridors in the hospital were strewn with overturned furniture, litter and other objects.
Sources said that the hospital gate had been blocked by Nehawu protestors and that doctors and visitors were denied entry to see patients.
Spotlight understands that hospital staff and patients trapped inside were panicking and that the police had to be called.
National Health Education & Allied Workers Union secretary in North West Patrick Makhafane confirmed that their members had “withdrawn their labour”, but denied that they were responsible for the damage to property and upsetting patients.
However, when questioned further he said that workers had been “provoked” for a long time and that they could not be blamed for reacting.
He said they had been “harassed for many years” and their “anger had reached a maximum point”.
He blamed the hospital CEO Naledi Mocwaledi and accused her of harassing and targeting Nehawu members. He said the last straw was when two shop stewards were suspended by management, but did not disclose what the charges were.
Makhafane said the strike was called off after the MEC met with workers at the hospital.
Tebogo Lekgethwane, Spokesperson for the North West Department of Health, confirmed that the MEC today met with the striking workers to hear there concerns and that the strike was called off after the meeting. He said that details of the agreement would be shared in a media statement to be released later in the day. According to Lekgethwane there will be another meeting with workers at the facility on Monday.

Opinion: The devastating cost of the North West strikes

There aren’t bodies to count or graves to mourn over, but the North West health sector strikes last year did claim its share of victims and did set in motion a ripple effect of tragedies.

They are tragedies that tell the story of how a strike turned not just violent but vicious, and how it was allowed to rage out of control till it reached a terrible turning point – one where everyone is a loser.

The headlines and photos of mayhem from a year ago may be old news now, but people who need health services to deliver are still counting the costs. Doctors and medical staff are adamant the strike did lead to deaths or at the very least severely compromised patients’ healthcare.

Senior personnel at the Tshepong Hospital in Klerksdorp, Prof Ebrahim Variava and Dr Alistair Calver, kept an informal list from the weeks when the strikes hit their hospital hardest in that first quarter of last year.

On the list are the dozens of patients who were unable to receive their medicines because people were prevented from entering the hospital during the strikes. Some patients had to be discharged prematurely because there were not enough nurses to attend to them. Others were redirected to nearby hospitals – their fate remains unknown. Some patients never returned to have their surgical procedures and the hospital has not been able to track them.

“We could have a worse scenario on our hands than the Life Esidemeni tragedy,” says Calver.

Variava and Calver are among the 73 doctors who felt compelled to write an open letter of concern that was published in various publications in April 2018. Taking a stand publicly was a turning point. It was an acknowledgement that doctors had become direct targets – more casualties of the strike.

At Tshepong doctors were barred from getting to their patients. They were verbally abused, harassed, pushed and shoved as they tried to treat patients at the hospital.

As the strike deepened last year, striking workers from Nehawu were joined by those from Saftu (South African Federation of Trade Unions). At around the same time there were general service delivery riots calling for the axing of then Premier Supra Mahumapelo and other North West government officials. Thugs piggybacked on the chaos of labour action and the political dissent with looting and rioting, adding to the perfect storm of mayhem that marked that first part of 2018 in the province.

It was the thugs who surrounded vehicles headed to the hospitals and clinics. They tried to extort money from doctors by demanding R20 from each driver to pass on the roads that they had barricaded with burning tyres and large rocks.

Variava recounts being racially abused when he tried to appeal to strikers to allow doctors to attend to patients. Instead what was believed to be Nehawu members made pejorative comments about his surname, asking “If he had Gupta links” before shouting him down from being allowed to address strikers who had gathered in a hall inside the hospital.

Community service doctor Hanrie van Niekerk from Tshepong Hospital remembers at the height of the North West province strikes the lengths non-striking staff went to in order to get to patients. Some arrived before 6am before the strikers stirred, others arrived incognito and at one point doctors tried to get access to the hospital via helicopter. Their plans were thwarted when striking staff piled furniture, dustbins and other objects onto the helipad.

“I remember a young woman in casualty who was a resus case. It was just me, two intern doctors and general ward nurses. The senior doctors couldn’t get into the hospital and the general ward nurses didn’t know what to do in casualty. I had to get advice and instructions by phone, we could have lost our patient,” she says.

Young doctors like Van Niekerk stand to be casualties too. They are the ones the country needs to retain in the public healthcare system. Many, already frustrated with the lack of resources and support for their jobs, feel they don’t need the added stress of being targets during strikes. While Van Niekerk says she has no intention of leaving the public sector, she admits she felt threatened on many occasions during the strikes. She refused to stay away from her patients though, forcing her anxious husband to insist on driving her to and from the hospital every day during the strikes.

“Even in a war a hospital is not a target, but in the North West the strikers were in the wards and in the theatres trying to force us and patients out,” she says. Damage to infrastructure and loss of resources also count as casualties.

Variava and Calver, like many other doctors and nurses, do believe in the right to strike, also in many of the demands their striking colleagues made. Variava says it’s wrong that they have been ignored for the longest time. But hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities and non-striking staff cannot be reduced to pawns.

They say what’s needed are for new service level agreements to be negotiated with unions. Variava also calls for a Human Rights Commission inquiry into the extent of deaths and casualties as a direct and indirect consequence of the strikes in the North West province.

He says there must be consequences for those who vandalise property, threaten people, incite violence and those who use labour action as cover for criminal activity that includes extortion, looting, robbery and assault. To date no one has been arrested and prosecuted for these criminal acts.

In the aftermath of the strikes bitterness lingers. Broken relationships are a casualty too. It was patently obvious at a Unisa College of Law Biotechnology and Medical Law Flagship discussion group held at the end of October. The event was titled “The right to strike in the public healthcare sector: South Africa’s healthcare battlefield” – ‘battlefield’ not being hyperbole.

The expert panel included lawyer Suemeya Hanif from ENSAfrica, Professor Ames Dhai, director of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at the University of Witwatersrand, Sibongile Tshabalala, national chairperson of Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Professor Chris Lundgren, anaesthesiologist and bioethicist from the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Witwatersrand.

The panel condemned the violence from the strikes, recalling incidents like clean linen being deliberately strewn outside laundries, garbage bins being tipped inside hospital lobbies and doctors being assaulted, harassed and robbed as they were walking to their cars. It wasn’t just the North West hospitals either, but also Charlotte Maxeke and Baragwanath Hospital in Gauteng.

The Unisa gathering was aimed at sharpening the focus on the legal framework that is in place for labour disputes. It should be adhered to, not disregarded as more casualties get chalked up.

Both Lundgren and Tshabalala said they believed that the real toll on patients and staff is still to be revealed.

The panellists called for new rules of engagement with unions, also for shifting the “battlefield” away from hospital and healthcare facilities.

It was one nurse’s comment from the floor during that day’s discussion that showed just how deeply the fault lines and failings in healthcare run. The man who identified himself as a nurse and a Nehawu member said: “Patients are not my first priority; they are ‘a’ priority. There are some of us who refused to take the nurse’s pledge because this is just a job for us.”

This nurse too is a casualty as a person who sees a profession of caring and healing as little more than a pay cheque. He is a casualty stuck in the cycle of endless fighting for fairer pay, improved work conditions and better career opportunities.

Organised labour is also a casualty, winning only Pyrrhic victories and increasingly losing public sympathy and support as the legitimacy of strikes grows fuzzier. What “victories” labour has had in the North West has come at the cost of others’ wellbeing and rights. Nehawu leadership’s worn excuses of “distancing themselves” from rogue members of their organisation doesn’t cut it anymore. They knew what was happening and their response to it was feeble and mealy-mouthed. Nehawu spokesperson Khaya Xaba’s failure to respond to questions sent to him by Spotlight also show contempt for the media and disrespect for the public who deserve answers and open communication.

Nehawu’s reputation is a casualty and so is that of police officers who stood by as acts of violence and criminality took place before their eyes during the strikes. The same goes for the Provincial Department of Health as a whole and for health minister Aaron Motsoaledi. Motsoaledi acted too slowly in the North West, leaving many to question if he was simply letting politics play out as the ANC faced its own internal struggles over the messy ousting of the then premier. It added more barbs to the thorny narrative that outlying, rural areas are relegated lower down government’s priority list.

The North West is still under administration, as it has been since May last year. The strikes proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, turning government structures and departments into casualties – casualties unable to serve the citizens of the province even at the basic level of services provided prior to the strikes.

The strikes cemented in place a web of failings – sticky, tangled and toxic. Right at the centre of this web of tragedy is the patients and their families. The ultimate casualties are the mothers who rock babies with brain damage to sleep in their arms knowing their children would have been born fine if there had been functioning operating theatres where they could have delivered their babies.

It’s the people who died at home not able to face thugs who had barricaded hospital gates or those who were forced to leave hospital too soon and later died of complications. It’s the people who grapple with the anxiety of knowing they face new medical challenges having defaulted on treatment they could not access on time. It’s the patients in the North West who today still will wait an extra hour or two in a queue or be told to come back next month as backlogs are worked through.

They’ll likely be told the standard excuse now: “It’s because of the strikes from last year”.

Health4Sale: Loss and more loss in the North West

Dr Zee* unzips her handbag. There’s hand cream and house keys, there’s also nebulising solution a urine sample bottle half-filled with hospital hand sanitiser, gelcos for administering drips, and other supplies. This is what she calls her crisis management bag.

“All the doctors have this because there are no regular supplies in the hospital. If you see that another department has stock of something you take a few because you can’t be sure your department will have it the next day. We even call this ‘bag stock’,” says Dr Zee, who is based at the troubled Mahikeng Provincial Hospital in the North West province.

Dr Zee is conducting this interview in her car. The car doors are open in hope of a breeze on a baking hot day in the North West. There isn’t a tearoom or rest station for doctors at the hospital. A tearoom is the least of her concerns though, because her and other doctors’ everyday reality now is at best, trying not to be swallowed in the abyss of deepening crisis. At worst, it’s the days she goes home and just bursts into tears.

“It breaks your spirit because you know that day you couldn’t help the patient in the way that they needed to be helped,” she says.

North West state doctors who spoke to Spotlight said their reality has become finding coping mechanisms to process the noticeable spike in brain damaged babies who are arriving in the paediatric wards. Doctors trace it back to when the Mahikeng Hospital theatre services were interrupted last year and limped along to a complete halt for two months in August and September this year.

“Many pregnant women who needed Caesarean sections couldn’t get them in time and were stuck in prolonged labour,” says *Dr Kay, another Mahikeng Provincial Hospital doctor. He confirms that on any given day there are at least three babies here with some kind of brain damage at the hospital.

Physical trauma from prolonged labour (more than 20 hours), including excessive pulling, abnormal use of birth-assisting tools and extended periods of pushing and contractions can cause the baby’s head to be constantly knocked against the mother’s pelvis or be compressed unnecessarily. This has the potential to cause brain damage. When labour does not progress the baby can also become starved of oxygen and suffer perinatal asphyxia, which can also lead to brain damage.

Doctors highlighted a recent case of a baby delivered weighing 5.2kg – he was too big and his mother should have had a C-section. The baby was born with a broken arm which occurred during the very difficult natural birth.

All four Mahikeng hospital theatres were shut down because chillers and autoclaves were broken. Chillers are the specialised cooling systems that control temperature and humidity.  Autoclaves are sterilising units that keep medical instruments free of bacteria to help control infection. Both are essential in any operating theatre.

“When patients were being transferred to other hospitals (because Mahikeng theatres were shut down) it wasn’t always a good thing because it overburdens other hospitals. We also know that sometimes our patients are victimised when the get to another district. We have already lost track of some patients – we don’t know if they had their operations, if they’re doing well or if they had complications,” says Dr Kay.

The theatre crisis put the Mahikeng crisis on the radar, but Dr Kay says it’s just one of many failings. As Dr Kay talks, his phone bleeps with a message from a colleague. It’s a photograph of a list of supplies in shortage. It includes linen savers to gloves, antibiotics, anaesthetic drugs, antiseptics to sutures and dial-a-flows, the crucial device that regulates the drip rate of a medicine, which is being administered intravenously.

“We haven’t seen a dial-a-flow here for ages. Nurses administer drips and leave it for half an hour in the hope that the patient gets the right dosage. If she forgets about it the patient could overdose, or not get enough of the drugs – it can cause death,” says Dr Zee.

Mahikeng hospital has 392 beds and was built in 1966. Just under 500 patients go through its doors on an average day. In total there are 1 200 employees. A few decades ago its arcaded waiting area at the entrance of the hospital may have been welcoming, pretty even. Now it’s weary and sad. People sit on the floors propped up against the walls. Peeling paint, ageing posters and faded murals tell a story of  neglect.

The OPD entrance overfills to the outside walkway. Some people just sit on the floor.
A paediatric ward is right next to adult wards – it’s an infection risk. Cardboard medical waste boxes are also stacked in the corridor.
Mahikeng Hospital’s operating theatres have only just started to run again. There’s only a temporary air-conditioning unit in place instead of a specialised chiller unit. It’s a stop-gap measure after services here came to a complete halt for two months.
Oxygen tanks left outside in the sun at the Mahikeng Hospital.
Not a soul in sight at the main entrance of the new Bophelong Psychiatric Hospital in Mahikeng. Construction started six years ago with the hope of improving mental health services in the province and freeing up space for expansion.
A bed and the basics stand in for a specialist consulting room at Mahikeng Hospital – there’s not even a curtain for privacy.
Shaheeda Smith’s memories of her son are stored in phone pictures. She looks at a collage of herself and her son Fazeeth. He died during a severe asthma attack at Mahikeng Hospital.

In another part of the hospital workmen are repairing a boiler. It looks like maintenance, but nurses laugh, saying it’s another patch-up job. The boilers will be fine for a few weeks maybe, then they’ll break again and the same repairers will be called out again, they say. It means there is often no hot water in the hospital. Some days there’s no water at all, staff say.

There are also no blood culture collection bottles so infections can’t be tracked. The adult wards are next door to one for babies – it’s a breach of infection control. Bio-waste medical boxes are stacked up in the passage and oxygen tanks are dumped near outdoor walkways.

Hospital insiders speak of irregular spending; continued bad management decisions; and administrative hiccups. They include overtime pay not being sorted out to stalled promotions that keep pay grades down, cronyism and bullying from the district and provincial structures. The allegations range from ambulances being misused to transport stable patients or a casualty department upgrade that cost millions, amounting to little more than a fresh coat of paint. All the while there are not enough oxygen points in casualty and patients are still seen in corridors with no triage procedure to prioritise care.

Staff speak under anonymity – there’s a culture of victimisation and intimidation. They are terrified and resentful.

“The MEC addressed doctors here a few weeks ago and he didn’t care about what some people were saying about the mental health and morale of the staff. People even walked out as he was speaking. He essentially said ‘we know there’s a problem, we can’t fix it, deal with it’. He also blamed us for scaring the public by going to the media.

“But the North West Department of Health can’t hide behind doctors’ and nurses’ silence anymore,” says Dr Zee.

By the end of April this year the North West Department of Health was placed under national administration. This came after weeks of violent service delivery protests, labour action led by Nehawu (National Health Education and Allied Workers Union) that started with pharmacy depot workers but spread to include other general health workers. At the same time there were parallel protests across the province calling for then premier Supra Mahumaphelo, to step down. Hospitals and clinics were barricaded, looted and vandalised. The South African National Defence Force health services had to step in to run hospitals, including Mahikeng. They also had to use their medical supplies to supplement the shortages caused by the strikes.

Jeanette Hunter, the Administrator seconded by the National Department of Health, says it will be 18 months before there’s any noticeable change at Mahikeng.

“There’s been years of decay and Mahikeng is just one of 23 hospitals in the province in need,” she says.

She admits there are “a million things going wrong” but she believes they are on track. She lists infrastructure and addressing staff shortages as priorities, along with reforming the tendering process.

“We know the chillers at Mahikeng have not been properly maintained for years. I had hoped they would limp along till we had a proper tender in place. We can’t carry on with a situation where work is not done to specifications, but we still owe suppliers money,” says Hunter.

Her catch-22, she says, is that she has to continue with irregular spending to keep things just-about running. Irregular can be defined as for example spending on a temporary fix of a split-unit air-conditioning system for Mahikeng’s operating theatres. It does not meet the specifications of a theatre chiller unit and will have to be replaced, but in the short-term it means the surgery schedule can be restarted.

According to the manager of a private air-conditioning company in the province that has experience providing services for hospitals, theatre-grade systems are fitted with specials screens and filters to limit infection risks.

“We’ve heard stories of hospitals hosing down old filters instead of replacing them.  The problem is that tenders are given to people who have connections, not necessarily expert knowledge or good standing to do the work properly,” the man says.

“Hospitals don’t pay suppliers for years and they don’t stick to mandatory servicing, which is what keeps systems working efficiently over time,” he says.

Hunter says she hopes to weed out misuse of funds and wasteful expenditure. In her crosshairs already are those who authorised upgrades for the operating theatres at the JST Hospital in Rustenburg.

“It looks amazing, but nothing works properly. We are investigating and hope to criminally charge whoever’s responsible,” she says.

She adds that Mahikeng’s problems are compounded by the fact that there isn’t a permanent CEO and confirms that a sessional doctor acts as clinical manager.

“No one wants the job because they know it’s a poisoned chalice,” she says.

Hunter calls her job hell, but she’s also not a quitter, she says. Positives, she says, is that she has the backing of both provincial and national treasuries. The budget she has is R11,121-billion this current year. Posts have already been advertised and emergency budgets for purchasing supplies have also been approved.

“It’s not that we don’t have the money. I just need time because we are trying to undo at least a decade of decay while dealing with things like the aftermath of the unrest and protests that affected the province’s hospitals earlier this year,” she says.

When Spotlight visited, the acting CEO at Mahikeng Hospital was Koketso Gopane, the Deputy Director of Corporate Services. Gopane and Matron Lingiwe Dibiga, who at times also occupies the CEO seat, want to believe that Hunter’s turnaround plan will work.

But, even the ad hoc nature of this key leadership position, means there’s no continuity, no oversight and just more complaints and more demands laid at their door.

“Morale is down, down, down, we can’t lie about that,” Gopane says. She tells how in August a security guard go-slow left staff feeling unsafe and intimated at work and meant some staffers ended up volunteering to stand guard.

Dibiga and Gopane say that without a district hospital they are straining under the patient load.

“There are 92 clinics in this district, but people will come here in numbers after 5pm because they want to see a doctor, then they complain when they have to wait a long time,” says Dibiga.

Neither of the acting CEOs have records of the rise in number of brain damaged babies or about the misuse of ambulance services. Dibiga also claims that many complaints about professionalism and unsanitary wards and toilets are exaggerated. She also says patients should take better personal responsibility to keep facilities clean.

Back in the parking lot, Dr Zee is knocking off for the day. Her route home may take her past the sprawling new campus of the Bophelong Psychiatric Hospital. It was supposed to improve access to mental health care and  free up the old site for expansion for the Mahikeng Hospital. Six years later, and at a cost of R478-million it’s still not fully functional. Dr Zee may have reasons to cry this day after all.

*Identities withheld


It’s difficult for Shaheeda Smith to look at photos of her son Fazeeth. He died in December last year. She was at his side, screaming for help as Fazeeth, an asthmatic, died in casualty of the Mahikeng Provincial Hospital.

She scrolls through photos of him on a phone as she recounts events that day. “I ran in screaming for help. Nobody treated it like an emergency,” she remembers.

“The nurses kept asking me ‘where’s his file’ instead of giving him oxygen. They eventually gave me a wheelchair and my husband and I tried to lift him into it,” she says.

Eventually they bought a hospital bed and wheeled the 19-year-old in. A doctor arrived but Shaheeda says she just took her son’s file and disappeared. Later they heard that the doctor had left to make a call to the doctor who had seen Fazeeth when he had an asthma attack earlier in the year.

“How could she go and make a phone call, while my son was dying?”

The minutes wasted away and so did Fazeeth’s last and final breaths. He died suffering and suffocating.

Shaheeda can’t hold back her tears. It was perverse torture that this month (October) she ended up in Mahikeng hospital again, as a patient herself this time.

“I had a panic attack thinking that I had to go back there. My blood pressure went through the roof,” she says. Five years earlier Shaheeda had an hysterectomy at Mahikeng Hospital. Remembering the aftercare she grimaces. She says patients in her ward had to share a single basin of water. Dressings and drips were done incorrectly but “rude, unfriendly” nurses refused to redo them; and wards and toilets were filthy and bloody.

She didn’t realise until she started suffering with abdominal pains earlier this year that she had in fact only had a partial hysterectomy. Her private gynaecologist confirmed that she had two cysts on her ovaries that had to be removed.

“I thought how can I be paining like this but there’s supposed to be nothing inside me? I’m in pain all the time. I stopped walking to work, because half way to work I would feel like my insides are coming out. It’s like labour pains,” she says.

Shaheeda was scheduled for an operation on 8 October at Mahikeng. She arrived before dawn on the day. She shows Spotlight photographs she took of the women sitting on the floor because there were no chairs. At about 9am a doctor came to see them. She and two of the women were told instead they should fill out complaint forms because they would not be operated on that day. The operating theatres had been shut down for two months and they had only that week started working through their backlog.

“We weren’t given a return date or nothing and when we got to the nurses to fill out a complaint, they told us it’s no use, and we should just go home. The girl next to me had a contraceptive loop in her and had been bleeding for three weeks. When you looked at her palms it was like there was no blood in her body. She was just crying and crying,” a horrified Shaheeda recalls.

Shaheeda has not gone back to hospital and survives on painkillers. Her employer is trying to have her admitted to another hospital in the province.

She’s rubs her belly unconsciously every few minutes that she speaks. It hurts, but she’s given up trying to get help and refuses to go back to Mahikeng – it’s tied up in too many painful memories.

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it, but I’m not going back there again. I’ve already written letters to everyone to say goodbye”.



Health Minister should be given greater powers

By Dr Ndiviwe Mphothulo

We need to amend the National Health Act (No. 61 of 2003) so as to give the Minister of Health greater powers to intervene in provinces and avert disasters in provinces. If we do not, the Minister’s hands will remain tied when it comes to the next Life Esidimeni, the ongoing oncology crisis, and the non-placement of medical interns, argues Dr Ndiviwe Mphothulo.

In 1994 a democratic government was finally elected in South Africa. Soon after, section 27 of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of South Africa placed an obligation on the this democratically elected government to develop legislation and implement measures to ensure that the rights (including the right to access healthcare services) enshrined in the constitution are realised.

The first task of this democratic government was to do away with the historical injustices of the past. The fragmented, apartheid South African healthcare system that had 14 health departments serving four different races was abolished by the new government in 1994.

The South African public healthcare system has made a number of major advances since 1994. These include, but are not limited to;

  • free primary health care,
  • greater parity in district expenditure,
  • the essential drugs programme,
  • choice on termination of pregnancy,
  • the hospital revitalisation programme,
  • anti‐tobacco legislation,
  • an improved immunisation programme,
  • community service for graduating healthcare professionals,
  • training of Clinical associates,
  • improved malaria control, and
  • the biggest ARV treatment program in the world.

With all these commendable gains, our health system still faces major challenges. These include:

  1. the quadruple disease burden of explosive HIV and TB epidemics, a high burden of chronic illness, injury and violence, and the epidemic of maternal, neonatal and child mortality,
  2. Severe shortages of doctors and other healthcare professionals in the public sector, and in rural areas,
  3. the current funding model which sees South Africa having a two-tier healthcare system: the private sector providing for 16% of the population but utilising a greater proportion of health GDP compared to the public sector that provides for 84% of the population.
  4. Poor leadership and governance in provinces.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the functions and objectives of a healthcare system are to impact positively on the health status of its community. To achieve the objectives of responsiveness, fair contribution and distribution, new financing mechanisms will be required to provide the much-needed funds to health systems across the world – but critically, it will also require leadership and stewardship.

The crisis in the North West Province, where the department of health was facing near collapse (due to poor procurement procedures), interns and community service doctors and pharmacists not getting placed due to lack of budget for their posts in different provinces, the near collapse of oncology services in KwaZulu Natal, the Life Esidimeni saga in Gauteng, doctors not receiving salaries in other provinces, all point to poor leadership, collapsed governance and lack of stewardship in provinces.

Some parts of the National Health Act (No. 61 of 2003) make it impossible for the National Department of Health (NDoH) to intervene in provinces. According to the act, one of the responsibilities of the health minister is to “endeavour to protect, promote, improve and maintain the health of the population (within the limits of available resources).

But the people who drafted this act never envisaged the potential negative consequences of giving powers to provinces. As pointed out by Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on various occasions, the Minister of health is unable to deal with the following issues:

  • The Human resource system,
  • financial management and budgeting,
  • procurement procedures, and
  • maintenance of infrastructure.

This means that legally speaking the Minister can do little more than watch as tragedies like Life Esidimeni unfold, as Interns are not placed at various hospitals, as oncology services in provinces collapse, and as crises in provincial health systems deepen. The Minister has no legal powers to intervene except for asking cabinet to place provincial departments under administration or holding provinces to account through the office of the health ombudsman. This situation is clearly untenable.

We urgently need to amend the National Health Act (No. 61 of 2003) so as to give the minister more powers to intervene in provinces and avert disasters in provinces.

Note: Mphothulo is writing in his personal capacity. He is the North West Representative of the Rural Doctors Association of South Africa, a board Member of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, and South Africa’s 2015 rural doctor of the year.

Ambulance bases of shame

An ambulance base has to comply with a certain set of minimum requirements contained in among others the National Health Act. At the end of last year, the Department of Health published a new set of regulations which detail exactly what the requirements are for an ambulance base.

The new regulations can be read here

Spotlight recently sent a photojournalist to four Buthelezi EMS bases. Two in the North West, Klerksdorp and Potchefstroom; one in the Free State, Bloemfontein; and what is suspected to be a central base or headquarters in Eikenhof, Johannesburg.

Images from Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom specifically, show filthy yards, bare insides with no evidence that it is an ambulance base and further evidence that safety and hygiene is not a priority. The images are published alongside our series of investigative articles #Health4Sale.

Picture credit: Spotlight

Health4Sale part 5: Controversial private ambulance company in line for new Free State tender

By Marcus Low and Anso Thom, Spotlight

A Gauteng-based ambulance operator, Buthelezi EMS, that is currently the subject of both Hawks and Treasury investigations has scored road and air ambulance contracts in the so-called Premier league provinces amounting to over a Billion Rand since 2013 and they are frontrunners to secure a lucrative new three year tender for Emergency Medical Services in the Free State.

National Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi last Thursday told Spotlight that he asked Treasury to investigate the Free State and North West’s contracts with Buthelezi EMS. He also made it clear that he did not want the new Free State tender to be awarded at all and that the national department is not in favour of outsourcing ambulance services to private companies. Yet, on Friday afternoon the Free State Department of health told Spotlight that the award of the tender for outsourced ambulance services is going ahead and that the evaluation of bids is at an advanced stage. Free State Health MEC Butana Khompela previously said that he does not want to re-appoint Buthelezi EMS, but he too hasn’t given any indication that the new tender will not be awarded.

The director of a rival ground ambulance company told Spotlight that industry rumours are that another company will front for Buthelezi EMS in the Free State and that such fronting is nothing new in the industry. While Spotlight  could not find any evidence of fronting, Companies and Intellectual Property Commission records paint a complicated web of connections. So, for example, Thapelo Buthelezi of Buthelezi EMS and Clifford Mahlo, director of High Care EMS, are also listed as co-directors of two other companies. Both Buthelezi and Mahlo were previously co-directors of ambulance companies with Thomas Maponya, the director of Maponya 911 Rescue.

Several well-placed sources have told Spotlight that Buthelezi has been receiving special briefings from health department officials in the Free State.

Spotlight has also this week visited a smallholding in Eikenhof, Johannesburg, where at least 20 new ambulances appear to be in the processes of being branded as “B EMS” ambulances. These ambulances have Free State number plates and the emergency telephone number on the side of the ambulances is the same as that on Buthelezi’s ambulances in the Free State – and not the same as those seen on ambulances at the Klerksdorp base in the North West. (see pictures)

Aerial pics and the pics over the wall of ambulances: Buthelezi EMS’ new ambulances on a smallholding in Eikenhof in the south of Johannesburg waiting to be branded.

The Free State Department of Health denies that Buthelezi has been given any advance notice of the outcome of the new tender.

Spotlight has also been told that Buthelezi arrived 15 minutes late for the tender briefing for the new tender in November, but that a senior Free State health official opened the door after he phoned them. Invitations to these meetings explicitly state that the doors will be locked at the starting time and no late-comers will be let in. When Spotlight asked the Department about this, they responded that “No bidder/s was allowed entry after 15 minutes after the meeting has started.”

As it stands, Buthelezi EMS’s previous contract with the Free State Department of Health is being extended on a month-to-month basis until the new tender is awarded or the relevant services is absorbed back into the department.

The controversial rise of Buthelezi EMS

Prior to Buthelezi’s arrival, the Free State was doing remarkably well with their

Orange wall: Buthelezi EMS’ control centre based in a house about 1km from where the new ambulances are being branded.

government-run inter-facility transfer service. In August 2013 Professor Martiens Schoon reported in the South African Medical Journal that maternal mortality in the province decreased from 279/100 000 live births during 2011 to 152/100 000 live births during 2012. The improvement was mainly ascribed to the department procuring 48 new vehicles (18 dedicated to maternity care) and the use of these vehicles to transport women with pregnancy complications. For a while, this state-run programme was held up as an example for other provinces.

Then everything changed when late in 2013 the province decided to outsource its inter-facility transfer ambulance service to a private company. Well placed sources in the province say that this move coincided with the scaling down of the province’s own capacity building efforts in relation to emergency medical services.

The Free State Department of Health claims a tender was advertised, but Spotlight can find no record of this tender advertisement anywhere online or in a newspaper. Netcare 911, a company that would have liked to bid, says they never saw the tender advertisement despite subscribing to various systems that would alert them to such tenders. Spotlight twice asked the Free State Department of Health where the tender was advertised. Both times they dodged the question, merely saying that “The requirement to advertise tenders on-line by law only came into effect in 2016.” They did provide Spotlight with a copy of the province’s tender bulletin, but there is no indication where it was published.

According to Mariette Pittaway, Democratic Alliance (DA) member of the Free State legislature and spokesperson on Health, the DA has also struggled to get hold of documents relating to the tender. “I have requested these documents from the HOD and MEC of Health in a portfolio meeting, when this was not forthcoming, I submitted written questions, which remains unanswered,” she told Spotlight. “There is a general disregard by the FS Executive Council, save for MEC Finance, to answer written questions submitted to them within the stipulated 10 working day period as contained in the Standing Rules and Orders. When questions are replied to, they lack detail and substance, and the tone is generally dismissive. When we raise issues in Committee, which is constitutionally mandated to do oversight, and has the power to subpoena, the ANC uses its majority to protect MECs and dismiss DA concerns. So in effect the legislature is dysfunctional in this regard.”

Buthelezi EMS was awarded the contract in December 2013 – with the contract signed on 20 December, around the festive season. What followed was ballooning expenditure and, according to a range of sources, a decline in the quality of services (see the previous article in this series for details). The Free State and North West are the only two provinces to outsource their ground ambulance service – the North West gave Buthelezi a three-year contract in March 2016.

“The DA is of the strong view that the Buthelezi EMS contract is irregular, over-priced, ineffective and could possibly have links to ANC politicians, since the ANC has been on the defensive over this contract from the very beginning,” Pittaway told Spotlight.

How costs ballooned

Spotlight investigations show that although the North West has been a good source of income for Buthelezi’s EMS operations, his stronghold and springboard into the so-called Premier League provinces (Free State, North West and Mpumalanga) has been via the Free State. We wrote previously about how Buthelezi was awarded a Free State air ambulance contract, that North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo all piggy-backed on.

Spotlight calculates that Buthelezi EMS has received well over R1-billion in revenue from government contracts, mostly in the Free State and North West,  over the last four years – with annual revenue rising sharply over time.

In February Mondli Mvambi, spokesperson for the Free State Department of Health was quoted in the media as stating that the department had paid a total of R613-million to Buthelezi EMS since the 2013/2014 financial year. The breakdown given was as follows:

  • 2013/2014 R4 million
  • 2014/2015 R99 million
  • 2015/2016 R159 million
  • 2016/2017 R204 million
  • 2017/2018 R147 million (Not yet full-year figures)

The year-on-year increases in the above figures raise eyebrows since the service Buthelezi EMS is contracted to provide does not change year-on-year. While some increase from the first to the second year might be explained by teething and scaling-up challenges, the steady increase over multiple years suggest another cause.

Spotlight asked the Free State Department of Health what the budget and what the overspend/underspend on Inter-facility Hospital Transfers was per financial year since 2015. We received the following response signed off by head of department David Motau: “Budget R531 297,000 (Total EMS budget); IFT expenditure R843 132,80 (for both Inter-Facility Hospital and Aeromedical)”

This response is incompatible with the figures previously given by Mvambi. It is also not clear which year it refers to. Spotlight wrote back to the department to request clarification, but the department failed to respond.

Spotlight has however had sight of internal Free State government figures that indicated extreme overspending on the province’s emergency medical services budget:

  • In 2015/2016 the department spent R152 million on EMS, overspending their budget by R88 million.
  • In 2016/2017 the department spent R163 million on EMS, overspending their budget by R86 million.
  • By the time the figures were generated, the EMS expenditure for the 2017/2018 financial year up to that point was R161, already overspending the budget by R117 million.

A pattern of alleged overcharging

The dramatic overspend in the Free State suggests that the province is either being charged more than expected (with invoices inflated as in the case in the North West) or the service is being used much more than anticipated. Almost everyone Spotlight spoke to suggests the former. While Buthelezi EMS’s quoted rates are in line with the industry, it is on the billing side where red lights start going off.

A senior healthcare worker based at a Free State hospital alleges that Buthelezi EMS often transports multiple patients in a single ambulance as part of their inter-facility transfer service. Sometimes as many as five patients will be transported in one ambulance, but Buthelezi would allegedly then bill as if five different ambulances were used and write invoices with five different reference numbers. This pattern was confirmed by more than one healthcare worker we spoke to. (See the previous article in this series for more on the impact this has on patients) At other times, patients who could safely be transported in cars are allegedly transported at great cost in ambulances.

It is also alleged that Buthelezi often charges for distances that are longer than the actual distances travelled. Spotlight was told of a case where a 2km trip was charged for as a 100km transfer. While we have not seen invoices proving such overcharging in the Free State, essentially the same allegations were repeated to us by senior hospital management as well as a well-placed person in the Department of Health in the province. This is also in line with what has been happening in the North West. Part of the problem seems to be that Buthelezi EMS often does not have Advanced Life Support (ALS) capacity in all the districts that they are supposed to – and that as a result ALS vehicles and staff must be sent from other districts – thus increasing both cost and waiting times.

There has also been a shift in the Free State whereby from the 2016/2017 financial year invoices are submitted to the provincial emergency medical services Department in Mangaung, rather than to hospitals as the case was before. According to Motau, the payment of these invoices was at the same time shifted from hospital budgets to the provincial emergency medical services budget. Some senior doctors complain that this shift has made it much harder for hospitals to verify that government is not being overcharged.

Spotlight sent Mr Buthelezi a long list of questions about overcharging and a number of other issues. Mr Buthelezi did not respond to any of the specific questions, but sent Spotlight an e-mail that has been published in full with a previous article in the Health4Sale series which can be read here.

No website, many companies

Despite having had revenues of over a billion Rand in the last four years, Buthelezi EMS does not have a website. The www.ButheleziEMS.co.za domain has been registered, but the site has remained under construction for the more than two years that the company has been on Spotlight’s radar. Some posts are made on the company’s Facebook page, but the kind of information one expects to find on a company with this level of revenue is nowhere to be found online.

In addition, CIPC records and invoices that the company has submitted in North West (see previous article) indicate that technically Buthelezi EMS is sometimes one company, and sometimes another. In the North West the company name on invoices did not correspond to the company registration number on the same invoices.

Thapelo Buthelezi is, or has been, a director of at least six different companies all named as variations of Buthelezi EMS.

  1. Buthelezi EMS CC
  2. Buthelezi EMS (PTY) LTD
  3. B EMS CC (Currently some ambulances are being rebranded as B EMS)
  4. Buthelezi HEMS CC
  5. Buthelezi Helicopter EMS (PTY) LTD
  6. Buthelezi One Stop Emergency Medical Services CC

A number of these companies have been in deregistration due to the non-filing of annual returns. Failure to file annual returns would result in companies not having a valid tax clearance certificate, and thus not be eligible for government contracts. The Free State contracts we have seen do not contain registration numbers – which makes it hard to verify with which of the various companies the Free State are in fact contracted. In the North West, the name of the company on Buthelezi’s invoices did not correspond with the company registration number on the same invoices.

Apart from the above, he is listed as a director of at least 14 other companies, including amongst others Ndizani Funeral Services, TSB Motors, Thapelo Buthelezi Hospital, TSB Medics, Ikanyezi Trading and Construction and Mt Ararat Apostles (a non-profit).

Read more here:

Health4Sale: North West blows HIV money on controversial private ambulance service

Health4Sale: NorthWest pays double for dubious private ambulance service

Health4Sale: Mpumalanga department of health broke rules for controversial ambulance company

Health4Sale: Motsoaledi asks treasury to investigate Buthelezi EMS

Note: While Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign, its editors have full editorial independence – independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.

North West doctors release open letter calling for end to closure of health services

Over 70 North West doctors have released an open letter expressing their concern over the impact the ongoing labour action is having on the delivery of health services. Although they support the grievances of the protestors, the doctors said that as “care givers, we have been silent for too long. We have taken an oath to “do no harm” and in our silence, we have contributed to harm. This cannot go on as we are concerned about methods used which include closure of health care facilities that affect the health of our society.”

Read the full letter here: Letter of Concern Health Crisis NWP (iii).

Health4Sale Part 4: Buthelezi EMS running a taxi service, not an ambulance service – Doctors and nurses

By Anso Thom and Marcus Low, Spotlight

Doctors and nurses in the Free State and North West have accused Buthelezi EMS, the private company contracted to run provincial ambulance services, of operating like a minibus taxi and “drop and go” service. They accuse the company of providing limited medical support and expertise during transport, leaving the desperately sick and injured, including babies, unassisted and putting people’s lives at risk.

Buthelezi EMS has landed lucrative state tenders worth hundreds of millions to run hospital and clinic transfer services in the Free State and North West. Last week Spotlight reported that Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi had asked Treasury to investigate the procurement of Buthelezi EMS’s services in the two provinces. This is in addition to a Hawks investigation and a forensic investigation instituted by North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo.

An aerial shot of the Bloemfontein ambulance base, likely to be the busiest and “largest” base Buthelezi EMS runs in the Free State and North West.

Nurses and doctors have revealed a litany of failures, some life threatening, with common complaints extreme waiting times of up to six hours (even when patients, often babies, are critical), overcrowded ambulances, poor staff attitudes, poorly equipped staff on the ambulances and in the call centres, lack of equipment, extremely poor medical skills, no medical care while patients are in transit and a lack of compassion for patients.

A visit by a Spotlight photographer to the company’s Bloemfontein, Klerksdorp and Potchefstroom ambulance bases, also showed that the services are run from tiny, rented houses with the bare minimum and in some instances dirty, messy yards, not resembling what would be expected of a professional ambulance base (see accompanying photographs).

All the doctors and nurses who spoke to Spotlight asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their government jobs. Names of specific hospitals have also been omitted as it will make it easy to trace the sources.

Patients squashed into ambulances

A senior doctor based at a Free State hospital alleges that Buthelezi EMS often transports multiple patients in a single ambulance. Sometimes as many as five patients will be transported in one ambulance, but Buthelezi will allegedly then bill with five different patient reference numbers as if five different ambulances were used and five different trips undertaken. This pattern was confirmed by all healthcare workers Spotlight spoke to in both provinces.

One Free State doctor said that it had become the norm for Buthelezi ambulances to arrive at their hospital with several patients squashed inside. “But we are not allowed to complain, if we do it simply goes nowhere or we are harassed by Buthelezi staff and our patients suffer,” the doctor said.

Another doctor said even if there were sick patients who needed to be transferred to a hospital Buthelezi ambulances would not transport the patient, but wait for the vehicle to first fill up.

The overloading of ambulances could also at times place patients at risk and infringe on the dignity of patients. Spotlight was for example told of an instance where a woman with birth complications had to share the back of the ambulance with a male patient not known to her. In another instance a patient with a broken leg had to ride in the front of the ambulance because the back was full. At other times, patients who could safely be transported in cars are transported at great cost in ambulances.

Lack of skills and equipment

A North West trauma nurse said she had a case where two severely ill women arrived in the same ambulance. During the handover Buthelezi staff told the nurse that the women both had bleeding complications from their pregnancies. The nurse conducted a pregnancy test on one of the patients after she suspected something else was wrong. The woman was not pregnant and the problem was completely unrelated to what she was told.

The nurse said lack of equipment was a major problem. She said patients almost never arrived with oxygen, drips or connected to any monitoring equipment. “They mostly don’t have equipment, not IV drips, not drip bags, not saturation monitors (used to measure if patients need oxygen), nothing.”

She said the problem was that Buthelezi staff exercised no medical care or procedures on patients while in transit. “They’re a taxi service and they are always impatient to drop and go,” she said.

Long waiting times

The nurse said a clinic sister recently had to wait four hours for an ambulance to collect a severely ill new-born baby.

“They run a taxi service, not an EMS service,” said a Free State doctor.

All healthcare workers Spotlight spoke to said that they waited hours for Buthelezi to arrive.

One North West nurse in a large town said they waited on average three to four hours for a Buthelezi ambulance to arrive, even though the hospital is not far away. “When we contact the call centre, we are not told how long they will take, we are simply made to wait. The staff also mostly have terrible attitudes when they arrive or when we follow-up with the call centre to find out where they are,” said the nurse.

The service level agreement (SLA) between the North West Department of Health and Buthelezi EMS explicitly states that “The Service Provider must ensure that its call centre gives the NWDoH a reference number and estimated time of arrival of the ambulance for each call.”

The SLA also sets out a schedule of required response times for different levels of emergency. The longest response time allowed for (for the least serious calls) is 60 minutes (measured from when the call centre receives the call). The SLA states that response times in excess of those on the schedule will result in financial penalties against the service provider. As with most aspects of this contract, it appears these penalties has not been enforced.

A North West nurse said Buthelezi’s ambulance staff are not interested in the handover process. “They seem to consider themselves to be a taxi service who simply has to transport the patient. I have very rarely had a Buthelezi staff member show any interest in the patient, put up an IV drip, discuss the patient or even take their blood pressure, they don’t even listen when we do the handover,” the nurse said. She said nobody dared ask for proof of qualifications. This is necessary as certain patients require certain levels of care for example Advance Life Support.

Call centre problems

One nurse said they recently had a new-born baby who was in a critical

The Buthelezi EMS ambulance base in Bloemfontein, overcrowded and filthy. The Free State health department said it’s contract does not require for it to inspect the base, despite the fact that the company transports most of the province’s patients.

condition and in respiratory distress. Despite several desperate calls, an ambulance only arrived after three hours.  “When we contact the call centre, they ask us the age of the patient, the gender and what is wrong. I more often than not have to explain to them what the problem is and even then they will tell me they do not understand,” the nurse said.

A doctor said call centre staff often did not understand standard emergency medical terms. When he calls for an ambulance he would as an example not refer to a cranial injury, which is a widely accepted and understood medical term, especially in emergency medicine. “The call centre does not understand that, I have to just say brain injury. I also cannot say Caesarean section, I have to say – we did an operation for a baby – then the call centre agent kind of understands, sometimes,” the doctor said. A nurse had the same experience, saying that even after explaining medical conditions to call centre staff they still failed to understand.

Is the motivation money?

The Free State doctor also said when they called for an ambulance from the provincial government or other private service providers such as ER24 of Netcare 911, it would take 15 minutes to get a reference number as the handover was meticulous, however via Buthelezi the reference number is generated within minutes, adding that the motivation was not patient well-being but money. “We know that 2km trips could be charged at R3 000,” he said, adding that Buthelezi did not have enough ambulances or a presence (with Advanced Life Support paramedics) in sub-districts as required.

The allegation that Buthelezi EMS incorrectly charges thousands of Rands for short trips is confirmed by invoices submitted to the North West Department of Health that Spotlight have had sight of (and previously reported on here).

Sources inside the North West Department of Health confirmed that Buthelezi EMS only has sufficient advanced life support staff based in five of the 19 sub-districts where they are supposed to have such staff according to the service level agreement with the province. Apart from this, resulting in advanced life support often being severely delayed, it is also alleged that Buthelezi charges the province for the extra distance advanced life support vehicles and personnel must travel to sub-districts where there is no advanced life support in place. This state of affairs was confirmed by Free State doctors as well.

Ambulance bases

Spotlight sent a photographer to Buthelezi’s Bloemfontein ambulance base. The base does not have any external signage. The outside of the suburban house in Bloemfontein was in a shocking state with rubbish, mud and a yard full of ambulances, some seemingly no longer in running order. Aerial photographs show a backyard littered with rubbish and no sign of any waste disposal.

Spotlight asked the Free State Department of Health whether they visited and inspected Buthelezi’s ambulance bases. Head of Department David Motau responded “Sites visits was not a requirement as per the tender document”.

The Potchefstroom “base” is a house which is mostly empty inside, with only a

The Buthelezi EMS ambulance base in Bloemfontein, overcrowded and filthy. The Free State health department said it’s contract does not require for it to inspect the base, despite the fact that the company transports most of the province’s patients.

few bare beds used by staff to sleep in. The backyard of the house has rubbish dumped at the back door. None of ambulance bases appear to have dedicated medical waste areas that are marked biohazardous. Access to these waste areas must be controlled. Unsecured oxygen cylinders are seen lying in the corner of a room. Several horrified paramedics confirmed that oxygen cylinders must be safely locked up and secured. There has to be a sign which cautions that it is pressurized oxygen. The front porch has a derelict bed with no indication that this is a Buthelezi ambulance base. The entrance hall to the house has what appears to be a radio transmitter.

At the Klerksdorp “base” the only sign that it is a depot is two branded ambulances and a car parked in the road.

Mariette Pittaway Democratic Alliance member of the Free State legislature and spokesperson on Health, questioned whether the health department conducted regular checks on Buthelezi operations to ensure compliance with the provision under the National Health Act (No 61 of 2003). Some of these provisions deal with whether an operator is licensed and whether staff are being supervised by a Medical Services Manager. In terms of the base, the Act prescribes that the operator have sluice facilities for cleaning contaminated equipment and linen, have access to washing facilities, including medical-waste traps, have all the relevant equipment listed in the regulations. The Potchefstroom base had none of this. The Act also requires for there to be a log stating how many checks were conducted at the base and what were the findings of each.

Responses from Health Departments and Thapelo Buthelezi

Last week Minister Motsoaledi told Spotlight the following in relation to Buthelezi EMS and the Gupta-linked Mediosa: “On my side as health there is

The backyard of the house with rubbish dumped at the back door. None of ambulance bases appear to have dedicated medical waste areas that are marked biohazardous. Access to these waste areas must be controlled.

nothing to investigate in terms of whether it is serving the health needs etc. It is very clear, as clear as daylight, that we do not need this type of service.”

Asked about the complaints from healthcare workers Motau said: “The department is aware of only one formal complaint from Botshabelo and the matter was resolved. The department is not aware of ambulance (sic) being poorly equipped and overloaded.”

The North West health department has declined to comment to Spotlight on any Buthelezi-related matters, saying the matter is being investigated by the Hawks and the Premier’s office.

In addition to a previous round of questions, Spotlight also sent a list of the above allegations and complaints to Thapelo Buthelezi via email.  This was his Whatsapp response:

“There isn’t anything I can assist you with. More especially after you have lied to South Africans that you have published everything I said. I spoke about other provinces utilizing aero medical service without any formal contracts and you did not want to say anything about the matter. You are most probably avoiding to talk about that because it will tell South Africa the truth behind all the allegations. It is clear that you are after Buthelezi EMS, hence you can’t talk about other provinces’ aero medical contracts. You may carry on and publish whatever and continue to protect your buddies. This matter is being dealt with from a different platform. I’m also aware that one of your informers, (Spotlight omitted this name) is busy talking to different provinces, recruiting managers to support him in taking Buthelezi EMS down and give you a falsified information. I wish you could report the real events  and stop talking to the competitors. It is a common knowledge that the competitors will always give a negative info. However, I still maintain what I said earlier, we are working on publishing the truth and not nonsense you have been telling South Africa. Good luck!!!!!!”

Read more in this series:

Health4Sale: North West blows HIV money on controversial private ambulance service

Health4Sale: NorthWest pays double for dubious private ambulance service

Health4Sale: Mpumalanga department of health broke rules for controversial ambulance company

Health4Sale: Motsoaledi asks treasury to investigate Buthelezi EMS

Note: While Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign, its editors have full editorial independence – independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.


Health4Sale Part 3: Mpumalanga department of health broke rules for controversial ambulance company

By Marcus Low and Anso Thom

The Mpumalanga Department of Health has defied guidance from its provincial treasury and acted in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act in awarding a three-year contract to Buthelezi HEMS, a joint venture between a controversial private ambulance company called Buthelezi EMS and HALO Aviation. This has emerged from court documents obtained by Spotlight.

Spotlight has previously reported on complaints about the quality of service

Contracts between Buthelezi EMS and the North West Department of Health is being investigated by the Hawks

provided by Buthelezi EMS’s ground ambulances. Presently, contracts between Buthelezi EMS and the North West Department of Health is being investigated by the Hawks and as part of a “forensic investigation” launched by North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo.

The background

Up until June 2016 aeromedical services in Mpumalanga were provided by the South African Red Cross Air Mercy Service (AMS), a non-profit. The service was provided in terms of a national treasury-administered tender called RT-79 2015. In June 2016 RT-79 2015 was cancelled by treasury due to a technicality regarding a utilisation factor that was not declared in the tender specifications.

Rather than continuing with the existing service provider, AMS, both Mpumalanga and Limpopo opted to switch to Buthelezi HEMS within days of the cancelling of RT-79 2015. This is despite the fact that Buthelezi HEMS did not have an aeromedical presence in either province.

According to Farhaad Haffajee of AMS this was strange because AMS was already delivering a service in these provinces and “there was no question from the Provinces (or anyone else) of the quality of service provided by the AMS or any other problems at all with the AMS service during the time that the AMS operated in these Provinces. In addition, there was a break in the service being provided from the time the AMS was told to stop providing the service to when a non-existent replacement service (Buthelezi) could actually start the service again in these Provinces.”

Haffajee also alleges that AMS was not approached to quote for the continuation of the service “despite having the aircraft, staff and infrastructure already in place.”

The paper trail

A protracted court process followed the cancelation of RT-79 2015, first in the North Gauteng High Court and culminating more than a year later with the Supreme Court of Appeal ruling in November 2017 that RT-79 should be reinstated and AMS should return to provide the service in the relevant provinces, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. It is during these court proceedings that it emerged that the Mpumalanga Department of Health ignored a warning from their provincial treasury that granting Buthelezi HEMS a three-year contract is not allowed in terms of the PFMA.

On 29 June 2016 Dr Savera Mohangi, Head of the Mpumalanga Department of Health, wrote to the province’s treasury indicating that the department wished to piggy-back on a contract between the Free State Department of Health and Buthelezi HEMS rather than going through a tender process. Such piggy-backing on tenders in other provinces is allowed by the PFMA in certain specific cases.

In her motivation for proceeding with the contract for aeromedical services Mohangi claims that there are critical patients that cannot be transported by road “due to their conditions which would result in loss of life due to prolonged transportation times as well as the non-suitability of the road transport”. She added that sourcing other service providers will take longer “as the services are required at such short notice”.

She does not explain in her letter why the department opts against continuing with the existing AMS service on a month-to-month basis until the issues around RT-79 can be sorted out.

Mohangi  also does not wait for treasury to give the green light before setting things in motion. On the same day as writing to treasury Mohangi also writes to Dr David Motau, Head of the Free State Department of Health requesting to participate in their tender for aeromedical services. Then a week later on 4 July 2016 Motau writes a one paragraph letter to HALO Aviation and Buthelezi HEMS asking if they “are willing and in a position to render the same aero medical service in the Mpumalanga Province at the same terms and conditions as per current contract for the remaining period ending 30/09/2018”. HALO Director Ryan Horsman responds to Motau in a one paragraph letter expressing their “willingness, capability and acceptance to render same service to Mpumalanga Department of Health”.

However, Nombedeso Nkamba, Head of the Mpumalanga Treasury, wrote back to Mohangi on 6 July 2016 clearly stating that the PFMA only allowed for month-to-month contracts in such cases up to a maximum of six months. Her letter leaves no doubt that the proposed three year contract is not in line with the PFMA.

This advice was ignored and Mohangi went ahead with the awarding of a three-year contract to Buthelezi HEMS. In her letter to Thapelo Buthelezi, Director of Buthelezi EMS and HEMS, she states “It is with pleasure to inform you that HALO Aviation (Pty) Ltd & Buthelezi HEMS/Trading at Buthelezi EMS is the successful bidder to supply and deliver the undermentioned item(s) to the Department.” She requests that they assume their services on 11th July 2016. (While Mohangi refers to the “successful bidder”, it should be noted that there was no bid process for the Mpumalanga contract.)

Spotlight asked the Mpumalanga Department of Health why a three year contract was awarded despite the province’s treasury pointing out that such a contract would not be in line with the PFMA. To this the department simply responded as follows: “The department requested to participate on the Free State EMS HALO/Buthelezi JV (Joint Venture) tender hence the contract was for a period of 3 years, which participation was allowed by the Free State Department of Health.”

Treasury and SCA instruction ignored

It has also since emerged that despite the appeal court judgment in November 2017 and an instruction from National Treasury in December 2017, both ordering that RT-79 should be reinstated – meaning AMS should be reinstated as the provider –  the Mpumalanga Department of Health has not yet done so. In response to questions from Spotlight the department said:  “The department has not yet cancelled the contract with the service provider as there were technicalities that the department is addressing with National Treasury. As soon as these are addressed, the department will look into the matter.”

By contrast, the Limpopo Department of Health gave Buthelezi EMS notice in February that they are cancelling their contract with the company. Unlike Mpumalanga, Limpopo did not provide Buthelezi EMS with a three-year contract, but with a month-to-month contract as prescribed in the PFMA. It is understood that AMS will resume providing an aeromedical service in Limpopo on the 1st of May.

Buthelezi HEMS was also given a contract in the NorthWest – although the NorthWest was not part of the RT-79 tender and its cancelation. NorthWest also opted to piggy-back on the Free State tender. Buthelezi HEMS continues to provide an aeromedical service in North West.

The Free State never opted to be part of the national RT-79 tender and ran its own tender for aeromedical services which was awarded in October 2015. It is this tender awarded to Buthelezi HEMS on which Mpumalanga, Limpopo and NorthWest piggy-backed.

Spotlight did send a series of questions to Mr Buthelezi relating to the above and other issues. Mr Buthelezi failed to answer any of the specific questions, but did send Spotlight an e-mail which has been published in full with a previous article in this series.

Read more in this series:

Health4Sale: North West blows HIV money on controversial private ambulance service

Health4Sale: NorthWest pays double for dubious private ambulance service

Health4Sale: Motsoaledi asks treasury to investigate Buthelezi EMS

Health4Sale Part 4: Buthelezi EMS running a taxi service, not an ambulance service – Doctors and nurses


Note: While Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign, its editors have full editorial independence – independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.