Ten infants died at Tembisa hospital at the end of last year. The health department tells us this it is more than likely as a result of Klebsiella pneumoniae. The infections, all concerned now agree, occurred as a result of poor hygiene, understaffing and overcrowding — in a neonatal ward with a capacity of 44, the numbers reportedly regularly surpassed the 90 mark. The same thing happened in 2018 at Rahima Moosa hospital, west of the city of Jo’burg, where nine babies died from infection. And at Thelle Mogoerane hospital in Vosloorus six babies died in the same year in similar circumstances. This is a shocking indictment of how routinely our institutions fail children.
The attempt to cast a veil of silence around the death of Enoch Mpianzi during a school field trip last week has left us aghast. But Enoch’s death is another instance of the poor standard of care for children. And it is another reminder of how these poor standards are hidden away in the footnotes of the tale of abject state failure.
The deaths of the infants in state hospitals and the Parktown Boys high school tragedy are more similar than may be apparent at first glance.
For one, the expectation of society’s silent acquiescence to these incidents is damning. In the case of Parktown Boys, it was the principal who is alleged to have insisted to the traumatised teenagers that they should not talk to anyone about the tragedy. The principal then appears to have expected these pupils to stay silent — not to share their trauma, or indeed even relate to authorities what actually happened.
The death of the 10 infants at Tembisa came to light only this week, after the department of health had had enough time to get ahead of the story and mobilise a response. “This hospital is notoriously overcrowded and the 44-bed neonatal unit often admits more than double that number of babies. We need to know why the public was not informed earlier and what accountability there will be for these deaths,” said Democratic Alliance Gauteng health spokesperson Jack Bloom.
What is instructive about these two incidents is that there is a clear attempt to control the narrative and, with it, the prescribed outcome. History has taught us, repeatedly, that this course of action leads to ruin. The death of those 10 children, many whose mothers had not even had the opportunity to clutch them to their breast, is a loss suffered by all. So is the death of young Enoch, whose final, desperate moments fighting the angry current of the Crocodile River is a nightmare for all parents. But it’s also telling of a society adrift of its responsibility towards children.