OPINION: On 27 February, GroundUp, a project of the Community Media Trust and the UCT Centre for Social Science Research, published an article on Daily Maverick that analysed the effective collapse of the public health system in the Free State. Ed Herbst compares the official reaction to this story to a similar story, albeit on a smaller scale, broken in East London by the Daily Dispatch seven years ago and asks whether the African National Congress does not owe the newspaper’s then editor, Phylicia Oppelt, an apology.
“The Frere Hospital story demonstrates the deeply disturbing reality that it is perfectly possible for otherwise decent South Africans, some of whom might occupy important positions as opinion-makers, to falsify the truth, consistent with their concerns, personal prejudices and backgrounds. Thus would they use the possibility to generate popular opinions, especially through the media, that serve to increase the possibility of the public acceptance of their agendas.” ANC Today ‘The truth, public accountability and the mind of an editor.’ 3/8/2007
“Certainly, we did not think we would be singled out by President Thabo Mbeki and his astonishing claim the story was false, and then the second-round attack, more personalised, on me, by the anonymous writer of the piece just under the president’s signature on the ANC’s website.” Phylicia Oppelt, ‘Exposing rot at Frere’s maternity unit of death.’ Daily Dispatch 16/8/2007
In August 2007 Phylicia Oppelt, then editor of the Daily Dispatch, signed off on a story which she and a team of reporters had been working on for months after following up on reports of an unprecedented number of deaths at the maternity section of the Frere Hospital in East London
Realising that it was a story that would have repercussions they had exhaustively checked and rechecked.
Here is how the Mail & Guardian summed up their findings and their report: ”Hundreds of newborns are reportedly dying every year at Frere Hospital’s overburdened maternity section in East London—many because of negligence, the Daily Dispatch reported on Thursday.
“The situation is so bad that a cleaner delivered a baby in front of shocked students, it said. Exhausted staff have to abandon the nursery at night to assist doctors in theatre.
“Mothers are also victims of negligence. A swab was left inside one patient after a Caesarean section, while another’s placenta was removed a full 24 hours after she gave birth.
“A Dispatch investigating team spent nearly two months walking the maternity wards with hidden cameras, attending the mass burial of dead babies and interviewing medical staff.
“Internal documents show senior management knew the situation was out of control for years, but did little to address the crisis. Minutes from weekly management meetings reveal admissions by doctors that patients were dying because of outright negligence,” the newspaper said.
Ad hominem response
In its ad hominem response the Mbeki faction of the ANC accused Oppelt of falsifying the truth. The personal diary of Mariska Barrow-Radloff, illustrated in the Daily Dispatch, gave the lie to the ANC’s denials and articulated what multitudes of pregnant women have experienced in South African hospitals since
“Mariska Barrow-Radloff’s son Kainan died on May 26, 2006 – and was born the next month, on 9 June. For two weeks, the King William’s Town mom lived with her stillborn baby inside her because, she said, Frere Hospital refused her a Caesarean section. Time and again she was turned away from the hospital’s maternity unit because staff insisted there was no bed available for her. ‘I can’t remember how many days I went to the hospital begging them to help me,’ said the 29-year-old mother of one. A journal she kept during her ordeal reveals the anguish she suffered at the time – and the frustration she endured with Frere’s authorities. In desperation, Barrow-Radloff borrowed R5 000 from a friend to pay for the services of a private doctor to perform the operation.”
She was far from alone in her grief.
“It was when her baby’s tiny white coffin, bearing nothing but his name written in red, was lowered into the grave that Murichia King’s emotions boiled over. Tears streamed down her cheeks – it was her final goodbye.” A mother’s pain, Daily Dispatch 13/7/2007
As is now a matter of record, the only person to be dismissed was the then deputy minister of health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, and she was dismissed for having the temerity to confirm the Daily Dispatch report in correctly describing the shocking conditions she found there as a “national emergency.”
Oppelt was not fazed by ANC lies and cover ups and she was vindicated when massive reforms at the hospital were announced. These corrective measures would have amounted to wasteful expenditure had the Daily Dispatch articles not been true. The exposé also earned the newspaper a Taco Kuiper investigative journalism award.
If she had been a racist, unpatriotic liar as the ANC claimed and if neglect and dereliction of duty had not been pervasive at Frere Hospital and in the Eastern Cape health department as a whole that would have been the end of it and no further infant deaths would have occurred.
Fast forward, however, to 27 February 2015 and Daily Maverick publishes a GroundUp report which indicates that Frere Hospital was merely the Free State Health Department in microcosm.
What has changed though is the ANC’s response. At Frere Hospital in 2007, the reports by the Daily Dispatch of dozens of preventable infant deaths resulted in the health minister visiting the hospital, a significant change in staffing levels and the upgrading of facilities and equipment.
In 2015, GroundUp could not get a response to the questions it submitted to the provincial government in the Free State because anyone who could respond was apparently on a taxpayer-funded R14m junket to Cuba for 72 deployed cadres.
“No one in top management was available to take care of the crisis”, according to GroundUp.
Then, one day after Daily Maverick published the GoundUp report, there was a response.
The opening paragraph exonerated Premier Ace Magashula completely, predictably laid the blame where the ANC would like us to believe it should be laid and the race card/Apartheid card was prominent in its hand:
“The premier of the Free State, Mr Ace Magashule is doing everything possible to provide the necessary leadership to get the department of health out of the woods that it found itself in because of the financial constraints, scarcity of skills, the increased demands on health services, racial attitudes, dealing with insecurities of personnel, victimisation of various categories of staff and the general ineptitude of some professionals who are clearly not committed at times to sustaining non-racial provision of health services,” it said.
There was more of the same in the rest of the response:
- … there has been a deliberate campaign to undermine his (Magashule’s) leadership by people who regard themselves as untouchables and some of which had established comfort zones and would do anything possible to resist change because it upsets these comfort zones.
- … the demands of the internal pressure groups of which some, while genuine at times are mainly politically motivated than service oriented.
- … we are aware that some of them are gross exaggeration aimed at embarrassing the province and some qualify to be deliberate orchestrations with intention to embarrass the Premier and the good work that the Province is doing to reverse the legacy of the past…
But what had happened in the in the seven-year interim between the Daily Dispatch article which first alerted the country to the crisis and the article published by GoundUp?
One would have thought that, in the spirit of good governance and Ubuntu, the ANC would have responded with intensive reforms throughout the country after the gut-wrenching Daily Dispatch revelations so the following media-related case study is relevant and informative.
Chris Bateman, the news editor of the Medical Association of South Africa’s flagship monthly journal, the SA Medical Journal, (Izindaba), is an award winning journalist and an investigative reporter of note as noseweek readers will confirm.
In April 2008, less than a year after ANC Today sought to destroy Phylicia Oppelt’s professional and personal credibility, a massive increase in infant deaths in the greater Barkly East area saw Bateman’s fact-finding skills reveal the truth behind their deaths.
At first the OFS provincial medical department tried to pin the blame on the nurses at the Barkly East hospital saying that they had not effectively utilised drips. The deaths, however, were really due to the fact that among the broad cadre corps of the ANC, preventative maintenance is seen as a “Western paradigm”.
His opening paragraph has a now-familiar ring, “The full extent of the Eastern Cape local government ineptitude and inaction that led to the 80 diarrhoea-related child deaths in the greater Barkly East area this April has finally emerged amid initial official denial and obfuscation.”
After 1994, in the interests of “transformation”, the town’s well-qualified water reticulation engineer was paid a handsome severance package – and never replaced by anyone with his academic qualifications, experience, engineering expertise and institutional knowledge. Bateman’s investigation revealed that most of the water purification equipment was not functional and pipes were leaking raw sewage into the ground all over the place. But there was a further aggravating factor. A drought had seen the water levels in the town dam drop substantially and all the sediment which had not been filtered out for years started feeding into the town’s water supply. Tragedy was inevitable. As Bateman’s report in Izindaba pointed out, what followed thereafter was tragi-comedy. It is a story which is being replicated in dysfunctional municipalities throughout the country, as numerous reports on Carte Blanche confirm.
Nobody held to account
Bateman’s report contains disturbing information – that despite local councillors knowing about the deaths no public health warning was issued for more than a month and, as always, nobody was held to account.
“Eastern Cape Premier Nosimo Balindlela, asked why letters requesting mobile clinics, sent from the region at the height of the outbreak, were not responded to, professed ignorance as to their existence. Asked whether she was considering taking steps against her Health MEC, Nomsa Jajula, she responded, ‘to be honest I am not one to capitalise on deaths. I am very hurt that children have been hurt and have died. I would like to see a better life for more children. My focus is on the sadness surrounding the death of these children’,” he wrote.
The extent of the public service health crisis can be further gauged by the almost weekly press releases posted on Politicsweb by the Democratic Alliance MPL for health in Gauteng, Jack Bloom. They highlight a host of problems in the provincial health department. These include R276 million in medical negligence claims, power failures which endanger patients, unsterile nursing practices, patients’ fees being stolen, interns not being paid, failure to pay mentally disabled patients their grants, patients being denied prosthetics, broken mammogram machines, unutilised clinics standing empty, trade in dead bodies, ambulances running short of bandages, hundreds of operations being cancelled, thousands of vacant posts, hospitals being stripped of metal parts, ambulances being involved in hundreds of accidents, hospitals running out of clean linen, pervasive drug shortages including chemo drugs antibiotics and painkillers and even a report of a patient going blind because of a drug shortage, doctors not being paid, leaking roofs, broken CAT scanners, patients having to be manhandled up stairs because of broken lifts, recurrent water cuts, food shortages, patients being forced to buy their own toilet paper and supply their own bed linen, flies and mosquitos infesting operating theatres, hospital suppliers owed hundreds of millions of rands, operations being cancelled because of air-conditioner failures, hospitals running out of spectacles because of a failure to pay suppliers, dialysis units using dirty water, hospitals running short of radioisotopes, hospital maintenance staff not being paid, sewage spills, desperate patients going on a hunger strike, hospitals and clinics in darkness because there is no diesel for the generators during electricity cuts, thousands of patients waiting – some for years – for operations and so on and so on.
Each day brings evidence of new horrors and some of that evidence has only been made known because of applications under the Promotion of Access to Information Act by the Democratic Alliance.
In short, exactly the same litany of problems which the GoundUp article highlighted.
The ultimate, albeit tragic, vindication of Phylicia Oppelt’s determination to publish the truth about infant deaths in Frere Hospital despite her vilification by the African National Congress can be found in this press release by Jack Bloom – seven years after her initial report alerted government to what is now a country-wide crisis.
“… 991 babies have died at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in the last four years, but the Gauteng Health Department claims that none of these were due to negligence despite a shortage of 112 staff in the neo-natal wards.
“I am surprised that the department does not consider that negligence caused any of these deaths, as it admits that Klebsiella Pneumonia and MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) were the cause of some of these deaths.
“Both of these infections indicate a lack of hygiene.
“The department needs to snap out of denial about baby deaths that could have been avoided at this hospital if there was proper staffing and hygiene.”
And in another echo of the conditions reported at the Frere Hospital seven years ago by the Daily Dispatch, this press release by Bloom: “I am horrified by the [Sowetan] report that Ms Yolanda Rakhajane was made to sleep with her dead baby at the Kopanong Hospital in Vereeniging.
“According to Rakhajane, after she gave birth to the stillborn baby last Saturday night, nurses handed it back to her and she fell asleep with the baby in her arms.
“When she asked the nurses the next morning to take the body away, she was told the morgue was closed on weekends.
“The baby was then wrapped in plastic, covered in a blanket and placed on a trolley near her bed.
“Where is the compassion for a woman who has just lost her baby?”
In its defence the ANC in Gauteng says there is no crisis in the health department, only “challenges”, Ubuntu is the guiding tenet and no individual can be disciplined because the ANC is a collective and you cannot discipline a collective.
The response by the Free State health department and the premier’s office to a cri de coeur by the physically and emotionally depleted medical staff in the province is, in essence, identical to the ANC Today response to the Daily Dispatch revelations about infant deaths in the Frere Hospital seven years ago. As a desperate last resort they approached GroundUp and, in so doing, find themselves branded as politically-motivated racists.
Oppelt could justifiably be described as the first whistleblower in the country’s continuing infant death scandal and she is owed an apology by the African National Congress which not only sought to cover up the deaths in the maternity section of the Frere Hospital but, in the process, sought to vilify her.
Had there been an adequate political response at the time, then thousands of South African mothers would have been spared not only physical and emotional trauma but the most devastating form of bereavement imaginable.
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