Health department fails Eastern Cape villagers

Residents in a rural town raised hundreds of thousands of rands to build their own health post, which the provincial government promised to run. Now it stands empty.

People in Lurwayizo, Willowvale, in the Eastern Cape, feel let down by the Department of Health after it failed to provide promised medication and staff for a health post built by the community. The nearest clinic is 15km away from Lurwayizo. Fed up, people living in the rural town raised R320 000, as reported by the Daily Dispatch, to build a facility for basic healthcare to serve those who need chronic medication or emergency health interventions.

Donations started from as little as R10, with the names of the individuals who contributed funds to be commemorated on the wall. According to resident Lungephi Thethi, 75, the structure was first erected more than a century ago. “This initiative was started by our fathers. They tirelessly tried to build huts by mixing soil and water to produce mud blocks. Unfortunately, those walls were not strong enough. They kept falling apart when the weather was bad,” he says. “We did not want their legacy to vanish. That’s why the community decided to stand up and improve what our ancestors created.” 

Without government support, however, the residents’ efforts came to little. The health post has a waiting area, reception, pharmacy, emergency room, kitchen and two consultation rooms, but it lacks appropriate management and staff. Inside, only a few posters written in English highlight the importance of wearing masks and washing hands. It is dark and almost empty, except for chairs and a desk near the entrance. The residents say they occasionally buy R20’s electricity for meetings, but rely on the little natural light otherwise.   

30 September 2021: Lurwayizo resident Lungephi Thethi stands at the health post’s two consulting rooms, whose doors have no knobs or locks. His father was one of the people who helped build the original structure.

There are no sanitising stations nor anyone responsible for screening the patients and the public. Outside, an old tank “borrowed” from Notshenge Clinic remains empty because the gutters are not properly attached to it. 

“The officials who came to see us before the pandemic promised that the Department of Health would take over the running of our [health post],” says resident Kidwell Tomtala. “I remember vividly this happened exactly during the period of national elections. Some government people were campaigning in our ward and wanted us to vote for the party.” 

Another resident says, “We used to fetch water from the dam down the road to build these walls. Some of us brought izibonda [poles] to fence the plot. It was a struggle but we managed to have a roof. Our primary goal was to store the medication for when one of our own is sick. 

“In February 2019, the government came on board and assured us that everything would be sorted. Not too long after that, the taps were installed. But they have dried up and only serve as decoration. There is absolutely no water coming out of the taps.”

Recently, an unhappy group of elderly men and women from the community of about 1 800 households gathered inside the premises to register their anger.

Understaffed and without medication

NoEngland Dlova, 65, says she depends on a social grant to survive. She cannot afford to pay for transport to get to the hospital because it is too far away. “To hire a bakkie from this place to Madwaleni District Hospital costs R1 500 for a one-way trip. I don’t have that money.” 

A local business operator who wanted to remain anonymous helped the community improve the state of the building. “The distance the elders had to travel to reach Mpozolo [Clinic] is what touched me. Most of the people are migrant workers,” he says. 

“They worked in big cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg. When it is time to retire, they return to the villages to reunite with their families after a long time away. Some have in the process contracted diseases from the mines and on the ocean in Hout Bay where they were employed at fisheries. By that time, they have no energy to do anything. Out of desperation, some of them end up buying medication from the shops instead of getting proper treatment from a government clinic.”

30 September 2021: Kidwell Tomala moves boxes containing medication inside the pharmacy area. There is little space to store medical equipment and medicinal supplies safely.

Nozukile Gonya, 68, walked into the health post to collect her medication for high blood pressure but could not get any. “I heard from someone who was speaking through a loud-hailer this week that the [health post] will open today. We were told that Tuesdays and Thursdays are clinic days. I left my garden in a hurry in order to be first in the queue.

“I’m disappointed to discover that the gate and doors have been closed again. The tablets I had before are finished. I have to ask my neighbour to give me a few to drink tonight. That’s how we do it when one returns home empty-handed,” says Gonya. 

Next to her is a patient who also did not want to be identified. She is in serious pain from a toothache. “I have been unwell for five days,” she says.

Fate of the community project

The chief executive of Madwaleni District Hospital, Songezo Conjwa, who is also responsible for Lurwayizo’s health post, refused to answer questions directly, saying only: “I need to first check these allegations with the Mr Tomtal (sic) who is the chairman of the [residents’] commettee (sic). I have tried to call him but he is on voice mail now.”

A follow-up a week later to find out why the facility was often closed and failed to supply medication did not provide any information beyond Conjwa saying he deals with the residents and not journalists. 

“There hasn’t been much change since we met last time,” Tomtala says when asked if Conjwa called. “What we want is that [the Department of Health] must add a number of days to operate the [health post]. It is important to mention that we have a lot of sick people in this village and we would like to have a doctor to visit and see us, even if it is once a week. What is happening now is that, after you called him, he arranged for a nurse from Mpozolo Clinic to come here at 8am. Other than that, the situation … remains the same.

30 September 2021: NoEngland Dlova cleans the maternity room. She is one of the residents who donated some of her pension money to build the health post in 2019.

“This is a community’s project and we cannot allow it to fail. The Department of Health promised to assist us but they are dragging their feet. We were told that it will open twice a week but that sometimes doesn’t happen. Do you tell me that on the days it is not functioning there’s no sick person in this area? We demand it to operate for seven days. They should bring … medication and two permanent nurses.”

A community member reportedly died in July while the health post was temporarily closed for two months. It is alleged the man died because he could not walk to the clinic to collect his medicine. 

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