/ 29 April 2009

No state health for me please

Staff Photographer
Staff Photographer

Health topped almost every political party’s election manifesto. Yet some of the leading politicians who used health concerns in their campaigns avoid South Africa’s crumbling public healthcare system.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe told the Mail & Guardian he finds public health extremely inconvenient. “I think everyone uses the doctor that’s closest to him in the neigbourhood. And in my case that’s a private one,” he said.

Mpumalanga Health Minister Fish Mahlalela also confirmed that he did not use state facilities, stating that to do so would be to deprive poor people of access.

National Health Minister Barbara Hogan said she hasn’t used the system since she moved into the Cabinet last year, adding that she has a private doctor. “I’ve had no necessity for healthcare for a while. I’m very fortunate,” Hogan said. She agreed that it would be unreasonable to expect South Africans to have confidence in a system that she does not use herself.

Hogan’s deputy Molefi Sefularo said he would use the public health system only if he needed to be hospitalised. For lesser complaints, he used a private doctor. “Ideally we think all leaders should be able to use the public health system, but we would like to get to a point where it’s ultimately a matter of choice, where the quality between the public and the private is equal. The tragedy now is that people don’t have a choice.”

Health activists said it was essential that government leaders acted as role models.

“The country’s health system will never improve if the people who create it, who are responsible for it, don’t use it themselves,” said Thobile Mbengashe, director of the advocacy organisation, Health Systems Trust. “How will they know how it feels to use it and what to improve? Ultimately government should ensure that the health services of the public and private sector are equal and provide service of the same quality.”

Arguing that public healthcare is in a bad state, largely because it is overloaded, Mahlalela said he uses private healthcare to take pressure off the state system.

“The more members of our society that can afford health insurance and make use of it, the better our public health system will work, as it will be less stretched,” he said.

Gauteng health minister Brian Hlongwa, Limpopo’s Seaparo Sekoati and KwaZulu-Natal MEC Penny Nkonyeni all claimed that they use public healthcare and are satisfied with the service. However, they did not provide examples.

Phillip Dexter, spokesperson for the Congress of the People, said it is no surprise that provincial ministers either do not use public healthcare or cannot come up with clear examples of how they used the system. “Generally the public healthcare system is under-resourced and poorly managed; the queues are long and you are not guaranteed good treatment.”

The DA’s health spokesperson in Gauteng, Jack Bloom, said that if health ministers are forced to use the state system, public healthcare would improve radically. “Forcing health MEC’s to use the public health system would be a personal incentive to fix up public health,” Bloom said.