/ 27 August 2010

‘You can’t just leave people to die’

Eighty-three volunteers arrived for work at Kalafong hospital in Atteridgeville on Tuesday. They swept and mopped wards and hallways and in the kitchen they packed sandwiches and stuck labels on bottles of chocolate milk.

Outside the hospital grounds protesters toyi-toyied under the watchful eyes of the police and military. By late Tuesday afternoon protesters were stationed in front of the hospital’s side entrance and volunteers were unable to leave.

Kalafong management had to make alternative transport arrangements and volunteers were eventually ushered into minibuses by men in uniform. Protesters grew rowdy and angrily threw insults at those leaving.

Only one volunteer was at Kalafong on Wednesday.

Catherine Tladi, the hospital’s public relations officer, said: “I can only say for sure that there was one volunteer today. Others did come in the morning but left after they heard about yesterday’s incident.”

The army, which has been assisting with medical needs at the hospital, took over cleaning duties on Wednesday, Tladi said.

Patients who were well enough were discharged last week and only those in critical condition have been left behind. Food for those patients and any remaining staff is prepared and supplied by an outside donor.

One of the board members of Kalafong has taken over the job of coordinating the volunteers. He did not wish to be named for fear of a backlash from his community, but said that until Wednesday the number of volunteers had been increasing daily.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to volunteers on Tuesday, before protesters stopped them from leaving.

Two young female volunteers from Saulsville spent R12 from their own pockets for transport to and from the hospital every day. “I don’t feel sorry for the strikers,” one volunteer said. “They are always striking.” This volunteer is a trained healthcare worker but is struggling to find employment.

The other volunteer is also not employed but hopes to study medicine in the future. “Yesterday I did some medical work — I received patients at the emergency entrance and helped the soldiers,” she said.

“People in the community, they say they deserve the money because teachers are like second parents and nurses are like guardians,” said the first volunteer. “But there are others who say they don’t deserve an increase and that they are greedy.”

Neither volunteer made it known in their community that they were volunteering at Kalafong. “When we walk through the gates [to the hospital] we say we are patients.”

Another volunteer, Azwihangwisi Madau, had been mopping the floor at casualty. She, too, had travelled from Atteridgeville to help. The manager at her merchandising job had heard about the need for volunteers at Kalafong and had sent her there to help out for a few days.

‘We have to help’
She readily declared herself as a volunteer when reporting for duty on Tuesday morning. “We have to help. It’s about the people, not about the strikers,” Madau said as she emptied a bucket of dirty water into a drain.

She said that in her community it seemed that people were less sympathetic to the striking healthcare workers: “In healthcare, like with the police, it is not right to strike.”

Percy Maitja said a friend of his had told him about the need for volunteers at Kalafong. “I don’t mind the strike, but people need help. I was afraid to come here at first, but now it is fine. It is safe here.”

“If you see this many people in need of help, you can’t just leave them here to die,” he told the M&G. “Next time it might be me.”

In 2007 more than half-a-million public service workers embarked on a month-long strike that wound up costing the country billions of rands. They were demanding a 10% pay increase, but ultimately accepted the government’s offer of 7,5%.

The then public services and administration minister, Geraldine Fraser-Moloketi, appealed to the public to volunteer at state hospitals, but, according to Tladi, few answered the call.

“There were a few, but not as many as this time. I think the media helped a lot with encouraging people to ­volunteer,” she told the M&G. She said that the hospital was certainly not functioning as usual but that they were grateful for any and all help offered by volunteers.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi spent last weekend helping out at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto and the Gauteng health minister, Qedani Mahlangu, made a public appeal on television for people to volunteer.

LeadSA, a Primedia Broadcasting initiative, as well as groups such as the South African Board of Jewish Deputies, were also active in calling for volunteers and coordinating donations from the public.

But Cosatu denounced the presence of volunteers at hospitals and schools at a media conference on Tuesday afternoon, calling them “scabs”.

“Scabbing is when you come and take jobs of workers who are in a legal strike. We call on civil society to support the strike and not to cross the picket line. Scabbing deepens frustrations and anger among workers,” Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told journalists.