Even after more than two decades, Dr Akin Ogunronbi still recalls his first day of training at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town because it was that dreadful.
Upon introducing himself to his interns that day, Ogunronbi’s professor pretended to frantically search himself to find his wallet. He started to giggle and revealed to the class that he feared that his wallet might be stolen because there was a Nigerian in class — a direct reference to Ogunronbi.
The interns chuckled. Ogunronbi did not. The professor laughed out loud as he continued to share the joke but little did he know that it would affect Ogunronbi adversely for several years to come.
Although it is hard to find the words to describe his ordeal, Ogunronbi — now a general surgeon specialising in cardiothoracic surgery — says that it is still difficult to be a doctor with an accent and a strange name in a foreign country. He says that it’s better not to think about it. “I just want to do my job, because it is my passion,” he says.
I was saddened by Ogunronbi’s account and it made me wonder whether we ever spare a thought or recognise the contribution that foreign people make to our country.
Is it because we seldom hear about the good stories, because there is an influx of the bad? If we turn on the news any day, there is a story about Nigerians running brothels, trafficking women and selling drugs. But why are we so cynical that we believe that Nigerians, for example, are all the same?
Although I am aware that we may live in a world full of myths, stereotypes and prejudice, I found it astonishing that a qualified doctor would be subjected to the tyranny of stereotypes, particularly because our public health system relies heavily on foreign doctors. They provide care to patients in areas that most local doctors find less appealing.
Ogunronbi provides a specialised service in Tshepong hospital in North West, where he heads the surgical unit. He has served in the public health system all his life. This is despite the fact that he could earn far more in the private sector and in European countries and the United States, where specialists of his calibre are sought after.
People may also not be aware that Ogunronbi has significantly improved the health service in Tshepong hospital and the entire North West — both for patients and the department.
Before his arrival at Tshepong, patients from North West who required cardiothoracic surgery were transferred to Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Gauteng. But this changed on Ogunronbi’s arrival.
The surgeon furthermore contributes significantly as an academic — he is a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s medical school and an astute researcher, passing his knowledge on to young medical professionals every day.
My conversation with Ogunronbi made me ponder the insidious effects of prejudice in medicine that we have become so accustomed to but hardly ever speak about.
In an article published by the South African Medical Journal, Chris Bateman says that foreign doctors, who are the “backbone of South African rural health care delivery”, are being “thrown in the deep end”.
Bateman found that foreign doctors have little support and are sometimes targets of xenophobia from fellow colleagues who treat them as “professionally inferior”.
Bateman reports about a doctor from Tunisia who said the “lack of moral and pragmatic support from some local colleagues” stunned him most on his arrival.
He said that, although he “was ready for the risk of violence and other problems”, he was not ready for the “exclusion by colleagues whom we came to help out with the shortages”.
It was not an outright xenophobic attitude, he said, “more like ignoring you in a group, speaking their own language or not informing, involving or supporting you”.
This was corroborated by a doctor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who described the xenophobia he experienced as nothing like the crude headline-grabbing township violence. “It’s more structural, not clearly expressed — a bit like blue-collar crime,” he said.
The truth is that our public health sector would “collapse without foreign doctors”, because 80% of doctors in Mpumalanga alone, for example, have foreign qualifications, according to Bateman.
It is important that, as a nation, we tackle all issues that have discriminatory intent with renewed moral conviction. The subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — discrimination faced by doctors from other countries is just as detrimental to society as the brazen racism that existed under apartheid.
Palesa Lebitse is a legal researcher, writer and feminist