I’ve always been fascinated by state hospitals in South Africa – those not-so-glamorous places where not-so-well-paid doctors, nurses and support staff work tirelessly to treat the millions who cannot afford private healthcare.
These places are a sort of microcosm of the country: dedication and altruism existing alongside poverty, desperation and inequality. But in between all this, most of the time, the system chugs along.
It’s not ideal, and we still have a long way to go, but what must be acknowledged is that South Africa is still very much an evolving democracy and it might take a generation or two for the wrongs of the prejudiced apartheid system to be fully corrected. Quality, affordable healthcare for all is but one of the priorities.
So when I heard about how the nationwide public sector strike, which began in mid-August 2010, was crippling state hospitals, and how the absence of nurses, cleaners, cooks and admin staff had brought the system to a halt, I decided to step in, and do what little I could to get it chugging along again.
This was after the government called for volunteers to help out at those facilities worst hit by the strike. Local radio stations and online news publications gave out the relevant details, and it didn’t seem very complicated: simply show up when you could and do your bit.
I had visions of myself feeding hungry babies, changing nappies, checking drips, making beds, giving out medicine and soothing the sick and dying. That would be really altruistic, I thought – almost as impressive as being a state doctor or nurse myself!
But it didn’t happen. Instead, I was dispatched to the hospital laundry, far, far away from the dramatic scenes I had in mind. I was so disappointed and almost felt let down by those who issued the call for help in the first place. I mean, a laundry of all things! If I had wanted to do washing I would have just stayed at home!
But I couldn’t exactly show up to help and then refuse to do the job that needed to be done, so I trudged along to the washing room – a noisy, rather depressing-looking place with monstrous, groaning machines and a steaming press that looked like it came out of the Industrial Revolution.
First, I was asked to fold vast piles of scratchy, moth-eaten blankets. Then I was sent to the dryers to take out the hundreds of sheets, which needed to be spread out on a table so they could be fed into the giant press. Next, I whipped around to the other end to catch and re-fold the steaming linen that had been squeezed through the rollers.
What I later found out is that this laundry services at least four other state hospitals in Gauteng, so that’s why there were so many intimidating heaps scattered about. Under normal circumstances it has 30 staff members, but 27 of these seemed to be part of the stay-away. Our team was made up of three full-time employees and a handful of volunteers.
The helpers didn’t fit any particular stereotype: women and men, middle-aged and in their teens, wealthy and not so wealthy, black and white. I was really struck by this – such a spread of South Africans who threw themselves into the kind of job that has no status, no glamour, no payback.
And they did it with such energy, commitment and determination – I learnt a valuable lesson from this. As I sorted and folded and tugged and stacked, I also developed deep respect for the individuals who usually have to do this kind of thankless, back-breaking work every day of their lives.
Often, as a society, we moan and grumble about all that is wrong and unjust on the outside, but hidden, in the most unlikely places, is a wealth of goodness – and that is what makes this country the special place it is.