The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) reports for Spotlight on some of
its recent work in the seven provinces where TAC has branches and
Following heavy rains in May, a malaria outbreak hit Limpopo. Clinics and other primary health facilities did not have enough testing kits or malaria treatment to deal with the outbreak.
Patients were therefore being transferred to Nkhensani Hospital. As there were too few beds, patients at the hospital were being admitted only to be left in an undignified condition on the floors of the wards. Immediately, TAC Limpopo organised a meeting with the CEO and Communications Manager of the hospital to address our concerns. The hospital acknowledged the challenges; in the interim, they erected tents to deal with the influx of patients. TAC Limpopo was not satisfied with this action, and escalated the matter. We wanted to know what the provincial department’s plan would be to resolve this crisis. Soon after engagement with the office of the MEC of Health, Dr Phophi Ramathuba, testing kits and malaria treatment were delivered to most of the facilities that were relieving the burden on the hospital.
In July, Mopani district in Limpopo was facing a shortage of HIV-testing kits. After many calls from members of the public who had been unable to take an HIV test, TAC Limpopo intervened. Following a snap survey, TAC members found that the following health facilities had either very few, or no testing kits at all: 1) Vyeboom Clinic; 2) Basani Clinic; 3) Hlaneki Clinic; 4) Ratanang Clinic; 5) Xivulani Clinic; 6) Mapayeni Clinic; 7) Khujwana Clinic; 8) Giyani Health Centre; 9) Nkhensani Hospital; 10) Thomo Clinic; 11) Dzumeri Health Centre; and 12) Ratanang Clinic. Knowing their HIV status is the most important thing people can do to protect their own health and avoid the spread of HIV, meaning that the shortage was a crisis for the HIV response in the area.
After hearing and validating the complaints, TAC Limpopo escalated the matter to the District Health Department and the Office of the Mayor. The official response from government was that the supplier’s tender had come to an end, and they had failed to calculate the risks and put measures in place to avoid a stockout. Following TAC’s intervention, limited stock was quickly delivered to Giyani Health Centre, Nkhensani Hospital, and Thomo Clinic. Shortly afterwards, TAC Limpopo received a call from Giyani Health Centre extending their gratitude for our intervention in the matter. The situation must be resolved urgently at the other facilities, to ensure that HIV testing can resume.
In May, it came to light that KwaZulu-Natal’s healthcare services are in a state of emergency, with shocking details shared by health workers in the province.
Reports reflected a collapsing health system which is in many cases no longer delivering adequate healthcare to the most vulnerable. Hospitals are experiencing shortages of life-saving medicines and equipment, and suffering through departments that are entirely depleted of staff. Major delays for treatment and care continue to be felt in oncology and various other departments. In June, TAC KZN met with MEC of Health Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, and raised these issues. In response, the MEC complained of cost cutting and budget cuts by the provincial Treasury. The response of the MEC failed to alleviate the concerns of TAC KZN. A suitable turnaround plan must urgently be put in place by the MEC, or TAC will be forced to escalate our advocacy around this crisis. The Provincial Congress will discuss and resolve a way forward. TAC will work with SECTION27, the South African Medical Association (SAMA), and the South African Human Rights Commission on this matter.
In July, TAC KZN welcomed the announcement that the University of Zululand would provide HIV treatment to students and staff on campus. If implemented effectively, this should provide an easier and quicker system for young people and staff at the university to collect their ARVs, and therefore ensure better treatment adherence. Making medicines more accessible will benefit the health of all people living with HIV on campus. The evidence is clear that earlier treatment reduces serious adverse events, such as TB and various cancers. Adhering properly to HIV treatment is critical to staying healthy. Additionally, this will also help prevent many new HIV infections. Studies show that people who are stable on treatment with undetectable viral loads are highly unlikely to transmit HIV to their sexual partners.
The dysfunction in the public healthcare system creates its own challenges for people to remain adherent. The reality is that our clinics are in crisis. People must wait in long queues for hours to get their HIV treatment. Sometimes medicine stockouts or shortages mean people leave empty-handed. This forces people to default, and puts their health and lives at risk. Students must take the decision to miss classes in order to wait at the clinic; those staying in residence must travel home to collect their treatment. Our rights to health and education are in conflict. Providing medicines on campus will not only promote better adherence for students and staff at the university; it will also relieve the burden on health facilities that are already stretched to capacity. Given the increasing uptake of HIV treatment through ‘Universal Test and Treat’, this burden will only grow.
Since 2016, TAC KZN has been working on a campaign to ‘Help Teens Protect Themselves’. Through our engagements with the MEC of Health and the MEC of Education, and in the KZN Provincial AIDS Council, TAC KZN has been advocating for better access to prevention methods, the roll-out of prevention and treatment literacy training, and easier access to treatment, including on campuses. Both MECs made a clear commitment to improve youth-targeted HIV interventions. Now it is important for TAC KZN to monitor the roll-out. Treatment accessibility must be coupled with counselling and adherence support on campus. We also urge the University of Zululand to provide easy access to preventative measures such as male and female condoms, as well as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP aimed at youth and the general population may have an important role to play in reducing new infections. Further, and critically, measures must be put in place to prevent the disclosure of people’s HIV status on campus, which would cause unnecessary stigma and discrimination. For instance, people should not be forced to enter buildings reserved only for collecting HIV medicines, and their clinic files must not be colour-coded or marked to show their status. TAC KZN will monitor the roll-out and advocate for other campuses to adopt this approach.
“Police in Ermelo used to assault, insult and arrest us often,” says Boitumelo*, a sex worker from Mpumalanga.
“They would arrive at our houses, kick stuff, call us names, beat us. They would confiscate our medications (including HIV treatment), destroy our foods, ruin our furniture, even take our condoms. And after they had arrested us, we would spend the entire weekend in the dirty, smelly, and cold cell. Sometimes we would be released on the Monday with R500 each. Then we would appear in court where eventually the charges would be dropped.”
Boitumelo and other sex workers in the Ermelo area have been victimised by the police for years. After a chance meeting in the mall with a member of NAPWA – who happened to be wearing a T-shirt saying ‘sex work is work’ – Boitumelo and other sex workers were soon introduced to TAC Mpumalanga. In late 2015, TAC facilitated a safe-space workshop where an advocate from the Women’s Legal Centre promised to represent the sex workers in case of further arrests.
“It was here that we started to feel safe and confident to talk,” Boitumelo continues. “It wasn’t long before we got arrested again, in December. We were told to be in court on 4 December. The advocate came to represent us and TAC members were there in numbers supporting us. We had done nothing wrong. We were sleeping when the police kicked down the doors. We were just sitting inside the house. The case was withdrawn on the day.”
TAC assisted in mobilising other sex workers and members of the LGBTQIA+ community to support us on 10 December in marching to the police station, to demand an end to the police harassment. “We walked through the township singing and holding placards. We were about 300 in total, wearing our mini- skirts and high heels,” remembers Boitumelo. “Police used to say we were whores because we are dressed in mini-skirts and that is why we wore it on the day. We wanted them to arrest us officially on this day; but instead, police came to escort us – after refusing to give us permission to hold the march.”
After this, the harassment and arrests did not stop.
TAC and partners escalated the matter to the MEC of Health, Gillion Mashego. They wrote to the MEC and the Brigadier of the SAPS to demand a meeting. The police had previously refused to meet, but engaged once the MEC was involved. In the meeting, after hearing the issues, the MEC demanded that the police stop harassing the sex workers and stop taking their condoms and medications. While the police tried to deny all that the sex workers said, photographs of beaten bodies, destroyed homes, and medications thrown on the floor, shocked the attendees of the meeting. The MEC instructed the police to engage with all departments and ensure that the victimisation and harassment would finally end.
“Since October 2016 we have not had problems with police. Since the police vans are no longer coming to our place, even clients come freely, and business has been better. Now I can at least send some money to my kids.”
Since last year, KwaMhlanga Hospital in Mpumalanga has been facing a severe crisis. A shortage of staff meant that doctors in the facility repeatedly went on strike. They were overworked, without the people-power to attend to all those in need of medical care. The maternity ward was overcrowded. Women would deliver their babies, after which they would be moved to a chair to sit for six hours observation, and then be sent home. Bloody and wet sheets would remain, as the next to give birth would occupy them. The nurses had no gloves or gowns; their clothes were dirty from delivering babies. The intensive care unit (ICU) was empty – no furniture, beds, or medical equipment; an abandoned, empty space. Conditions were untenable. At the district People’s Health Assembly organised by TAC in 2016, many complaints of poor service at KwaMhlanga were made, with members of the District Health Department in attendance: reports of people dying unnecessarily; people waiting months for simple procedures. The situation was so bad that even the National Portfolio Committee on Health visited the province and gave a damning report, which lead to the notorious threats made against MP Dr Makhosi Khoza.
TAC Mpumalanga met with the Hospital CEO to raise the various challenges that had been reported to us. The matter was escalated to the District Health Department, and then the Provincial Health Department. A meeting with Gillion Mashego, the MEC of Health, led to the removal of the CEO. An interim CEO was appointed in February 2017, after which the hospital received an injection of two million rand. The maternity ward was extended into a portion of the ICU to relieve the burden on the overcrowded ward, and a new position to manage this maternity ward has been advertised. The interim CEO visited hospitals in the North West to benchmark and gain guidance as to how to turn the crisis around. Some stability has finally been found. TAC will monitor the situation, and continue engaging with the new MEC.
* Not her real name – changed to protect her identity.
For a long time, TAC Western Cape received complaints about Michael Mapongwana Community Health Clinic in Khayelitsha.
Parents with children and babies would be seen in a container at the back of the clinic. They would wait outside for long periods, whatever the weather conditions, to be attended to by health workers. They would have to undress their children outside because of a lack of space on the inside. Children with illnesses shared the same space with those attending post-natal check-ups. Late last year, TAC Western Cape held a picket outside the clinic, and met with the Health Department to address these concerns. Finally, in February 2017, following pressure from TAC, a new structure was opened that could accommodate the children in a dignified and appropriate manner.
Since 2016, TAC Eastern Cape had received numerous complaints from the Clinic Committee and community members fearful of accessing health services at Philani Clinic. Mostly this was due to the bad attitude and lack of respect shown to patients by one of the nurses.
This nurse had repeatedly and publicly disclosed people’s HIV status and other health conditions without their consent. The situation had left community members not wanting to use the clinic at all.
While the Mayor had proposed suspending the nurse in question pending a disciplinary hearing, the Sub-District Health Manager undermined this decision. The community were understandably angry at the change. In April 2017 they shut the clinic down in protest, locking its gates until the matter was resolved. According to the community, the clinic would only be reopened given the removal of the nurse. This meant no-one could access services at all. Worryingly, TB and drug-resistant TB patients in the area could not undergo treatment reviews, as their folders were locked inside the clinic. They had no option but to use another facility, given that the nearest TB hospital is 350km away.
TAC Eastern Cape and the Queenstown Council of Churches urgently mobilised the Clinic Committee, community organisations, churches and partners in the area to meet in Queenstown and come up with a strategy to re-open the clinic, to ensure people could access health care. TAC met with MEC of Health Phumza Dyantyi and Clinic Committee members to demand a way forward. After this pressure, the clinic was re-opened in June 2017, and the nurse was removed. While one battle was won, the clinic is now understaffed, with one nurse being dismissed and one more resigning. TAC Eastern Cape will continue to demand that the vacant posts are filled urgently.
TAC Free State hears many complaints of medical negligence, and endeavours to assist people in getting the healthcare they need and deserve. One incident in Botshabelo involved Samuel Selebedi, who was bleeding profusely after falling onto a glass bottle.
After attending the clinic, he was rushed to Botshabelo Hospital. A painful surgery was conducted to stitch the bleeding arm, but doctors failed to remove the glass that had been lodged inside. No X-ray was taken. Mr Selebedi was sent home. Two months later, he faced complications. When he returned to Botshabelo Hospital, no-one attended to him. He then visited a private health practitioner, who was the first person able to explain what had gone wrong. The doctor advised him to return to the hospital, to demand surgery to remove the glass from his arm. At this point, TAC Free State were contacted for support. TAC Free State accompanied Mr Selebedi to the hospital, supporting him to advocate for his right to health. The matter was escalated to the CEO of the hospital. Finally, a thorough surgery took place, and the glass was removed. TAC Free State will continue to support Mr Selebedi as he raises a case of medical negligence against the hospital, and will hold the CEO to account in ensuring no other cases of negligence occur.
In a landmark judgment in November 2016, with important implications for the right to protest in South Africa, the Bloemfontein High Court set aside the convictions and sentences of the 94 community healthcare workers (CHWs) known as the #BopheloHouse94. This finally brought to an end the state’s callous and vindictive persecution of this courageous group of mostly elderly women.
The #BopheloHouse94 are CHWs from across the Free State. They were arrested in June 2014 at a peaceful night vigil at Bophelo House, the headquarters of the Free State Health Department. They were protesting the collapse of the Free State public healthcare system, and the April 2014 decision of then MEC of Health, Dr Benny Malakoane, to dismiss without warning or cause approximately 3 000 CHWs in the province. Malakoane has recently been removed as MEC of Health.
Since the judgment, TAC Free State has been engaging with the new MEC of Health, Butana Komphela. Not only have they been advocating for the turnaround of the broken public healthcare system, they also advocated for the reinstatement of the CHWs. A Memorandum of Understanding is in development that will ensure that TAC branches in Free State can work better with clinics to ensure a functioning health system. Furthermore, a plan to reinstate the CHWs is in motion. Phase one will be the re-hiring of those in the case, with phase two seeing a bigger expansion of the programme. TAC Free State will meet with the MEC quarterly, and continue to monitor the state of health care in the province.
In March, community members phoned TAC Gauteng outraged and concerned after watching a white pick-up truck dump medical waste near the taxi rank in Mamelodi. Tablets, capsules, loose powder, syringes, pregnancy tests, HIV tests and office papers were strewn across the ground.
When TAC Gauteng arrived on the scene, a child was playing in the waste. Residents informed them that some of the powder and syringes had been taken by those passing by. A steady stream of people were passing by. It was not safe to leave the waste unattended. TAC Gauteng found business cards among the waste from a company called Jade Pharmaceutical Enterprises. After calling the company they were told it had closed a year earlier – the woman on the phone tried to tell them that the waste was not harmful. When they called back a second time, they were told conflicting information – that the company had closed in 2013. Calls to the police and the local counsellor landed on deaf ears. Messages were sent to the MEC of Health to intervene urgently. The local municipality was contacted. TAC Gauteng remained on the scene from the afternoon until midnight. To protect their own safety they left, returning at 4am when residents would begin to pass by in the morning. Eventually, after pressure from TAC Gauteng, the local municipality made arrangements for someone to take over from TAC in guarding the waste – and another company was hired to remove the waste entirely.
In March, TAC Gauteng was alarmed at the collapse of an entrance to the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. A hospital should be a place of safety and shelter, not a place where people are hurt. TAC Gauteng were unequivocal that urgent steps needed to be taken by MEC of Health Gwen Ramokgopa to audit the infrastructure all Gauteng health facilities, and ensure this does not happen again.
TAC Gauteng launched a fact-finding mission into the state of hospitals across the province. Not only are they monitoring the state of the infrastructure but also the state of service delivery. Are there enough doctors, nurses, porters and security guards? Are people sent home without medicines? How long must people wait to be seen in these facilities? Are the facilities clean? Are there enough beds? Do people get the service they need?
On 16 March, TAC Gauteng met with MEC Ramokgopa for the first time. They are committed to engaging with her constructively to bring an end to the crisis in the public healthcare system. In addition to other issues, they raised concerns over the state of facilities. They urged MEC Ramokgopa to undertake an urgent audit of health facilities across the province, the results of which must be made public, together with a plan to address any failings. The department must strengthen the Infrastructure Unit (in conjunction with the Department of Public Works) to address backlog maintenance, routine maintenance and the building of new health facilities – as well as ensuring better monitoring and oversight of material procurement processes – in order to prevent any further disasters in our health facilities.
Since 2012, TAC Gauteng have been raising concerns about the dire state of health facility infrastructure in the province. A report issued by TAC and SECTION27 at the time highlighted issues including the poor condition of buildings, power failures, the lack of safety features, potholes, and the non-functioning lifts; and the impact of these failures on the provision of healthcare. As recently as last September, TAC Gauteng picketed outside Thelle Mogoerane Hospital in Vosloorus, noting – among other issues – cracks and leaks in the hospital building that have yet to be addressed. Another picket took place at Pholosong Hospital in Tsakane, which is also in disrepair.
Especially alarming were reports that doctors at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital have been complaining for years about the structural problems. Even worse is that they felt the need to remain anonymous in making these reports. In our meeting, we urged MEC Ramokgopa to ensure a new era of openness, engagement and accountability from the provincial health department. No healthcare worker should fear victimisation or lack of job security as a result of speaking out. In order to ensure better communication flows, accountability structures such as hospital boards and clinic committees should be fully functional, to ensure the concerns of health workers and community members are addressed effectively. A system should be established to take management teams out of their offices and into the community to listen to the needs of the people on a regular basis.
Proper maintenance of existing infrastructure and the development of more suitable infrastructure is essential to ensure safety, suitability, cleanliness and the proper functioning of facilities across the province. While Treasury may cut the health facility revitalisation grant, the onus is on MEC Ramokgopa to ensure enough money is put towards maintenance projects through the equitable share. National cuts must not impact negatively on the quality of our health facilities.