/ 17 May 2024

Editorial | Don’t play politics over healthcare

Burden: Medical staff at Tembisa Hospital on the East Rand work hard with few resources to assist the many people seeking healthcare. (Guillem Sartorio/Getty Images)

Former Uruguayan leader José Mujica — in office from 2010 to 2015 — was known as “the poorest president in the world” during his tenure. He earned this description by withdrawing a modest stipend, rejecting any lavish trappings and owning little more than a clunky blue Volkswagen Beetle. When his term was up he called an end to his career gracefully, retreating to spend more time with his wife and three-legged dog.

Even if we are at our most cynical about his intentions, we have to admit Mujica understood that a leader serves the people. The goodwill he earned through his actions was converted into political currency that he spent on, among other things, pushing through progressive LGBTI+ and cannabis legislation.

Such tales of modesty are foreign to South Africa.

The ANC — the party that has governed the country for 30 years — has been in steady electoral decline and, according to most polls, will probably lose its majority later this month. Its tale is one of disillusionment and apathy. 

No one disputes the ANC’s vision of a nonracial, liberal South Africa — only the willingness of its leaders to selflessly implement it.

That tragedy is encapsulated in the National Health Insurance (NHI) Act. 

What should be a discussion about equitable healthcare in a grossly unequal country has predictably devolved into shameless politicking.

In his State of the Nation address in February, President Cyril Ramaphosa primed us by declaring that he was looking for a pen to sign the NHI bill. Now he has found it two weeks before a watershed election. His trite jokes about missing stationery should not distract from his crafty timing.

Nor should we be lured into the false dichotomy he has tried to construct between those wanting an empathetic national health policy and those who do not. “The opposition is coming from well-to-do, rich people,” he said on the eve of signing the bill into law. “This is what often happens. The haves don’t want the have-nots to benefit from what they have been having.”

We have been shown no evidence or action in the past six years that our president is on the side of the “have-nots”. Ramaphosa, a wealthy business person who would never be accused of being one of the world’s poorer presidents, has once again failed to engage on the merits of an issue and has instead fallen back on platitude. This tendency is a sad characteristic of his presidency. 

With NHI outrage bursting out of every headline this week, and the Act set to be challenged, we will temper our judgment. Instead we issue a plea to incumbent leaders and the loud opposition: for once, let’s put our country and its people first.

With that comes a warning. South Africans are not fools. They are fed up with disingenuous politics and will duly punish anyone who wields them at the polls.