Garlic, beetroot and lemon

It was a worldwide public humiliation…

Here was South Africa, the richest and most developed country on the continent, home to (perhaps) the best rugby team on the planet, land to first world infrastructure and the best constitution in the world, home to one of the greatest leaders of our time Mr Nelson Mandela- and there was our Health Minister, Ms Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and essentially the country’s government saying garlic, beetroot and lemons delayed the development of HIV to Aids-defining conditions.

At the time the Independent Newspapers reported: “While a third of pregnant women were HIV-positive, only 15 percent received medication to prevent transmission to their babies.”

The number of preventable deaths that resulted because of our stance on HIV/AIDS then is shameful.

When I heard it echoed on an episode of Law and Order I realized how widely spread our humiliation had reached.

To some extent health care concerning HIV/AIDS has improved.

The progress is slow- but at least there has been progress. And I believe it’s because people right here in South Africa advocated for change.

Did you know that Johannesburg is the most treed city in the world?

No other city, in the world, has more trees than Jozi.

The rand remains one of the top ten most traded currencies on the markets.

Ask anyone who’s travelled to a few countries around the world and they’ll tell you that South Africa is one the most beautiful countries they’ve been to.

People from around the globe flock to South Africa to make their homes here. And I’m not just talking about immigrant workers from other African countries. I mean citizens of first world countries who come to South Africa, are captured by the magic here, and choose to leave the homes of their births to make new homes in South Africa.

Do we have massive inequalities? Yes.

Do we have an insane crime rate? Yes.

There are negatives in South Africa. But if the good didn’t out-weigh the bad then people, who could live in their first world countries where these issues are not as prevalent, would not stay here.

It is with this in mind that I’m baffled by our crazy infant and maternal mortality rates.

I’ve heard the argument about the lack of resources in State Hospitals and I have to question the validity of that argument.

How is it that countries far, far, poorer than South Africa do better?

To give you an example, when it comes to how many babies die in South Africa compared to other countries, the most recent stats are as follows:

Out of every 1000 births 42 babies die in South Africa.

Compared to 10 out of every thousand in Botswana; 27 out of every thousand in Zimbabwe; between 39 and 40 out of every thousand babies in both Ghana and Eritirea.

Eritrea for crying out loud! Eritrea relies heavily on donor aid! How is it possible that Eritrea beats South Africa at both  infant and maternal mortality rates!

It’s insane.

In 2012 Eritrea’s GDP was $4.41 billion. South Africa’s was $578.6 billion. And Eritrea beat us at keeping their babies and moms alive!

The most recent stats on maternal mortality rates in South Africa indicate that 300 out of every 100 000 moms die due to complications in child bearing.

Compared to Eritrea where the figure is 240.

Let’s look at other African countries:

Equatorial Guinea: 240

Gabon: 230

Djibouti and Namibia: 200

Botswana: 160

Morocco: 100

Algeria: 97

Egypt: 66

Libya: 58

One mom I spoke to lost her 18 year old daughter due to what can only be described as negligence by public health care officials.

They (public health care officials) had received a referral letter from a gynae recommending that the young mom be hospitalized and treated urgently.

Almost three days went by without the pregnant girl seeing a health care provider- the baby died and the young mom subsequently bled to death.

I don’t want to rehash some of the stories I’ve come across- perhaps in another post.

What I would like to ask though is what are we  going to do about it?

South Africa, as part of the UN, is signatory to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Goal 4 is reduce the child mortality (under the age of 5) ratio by two thirds by 2015.

Goal 5 is reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters by 2015.

Is South Africa on track to achieve either?

Well I went to public hospitals around Johannesburg and spoke to nurses- not one nurse I came across even knew what the MDGs were.

And then I came across a young mom who had just come from the clinic to have her son vaccinated.

She carried her pretty baby on her back- I stopped her and asked if she would speak with me.

I told her I was researching treatment of mothers in public hospitals.

She looked down shyly and said she wasn’t keen on talking.

She was with her husband and her husband urged her: “Tell her,” he encouraged.

“Tell me what?” I asked the mom gently.

She opened up and told me how the nurses at the clinic had insulted her.

She had taken her son to a different clinic than she normally did. The nurses were livid.

“They swore at me,” she said softly.

She told me how they had humiliated her and insulted her to the point of mentioning her private parts.

My heart broke for her.

“But I stayed,” she said swaying her son from side to side.

“I stayed and I let them insult me because I had to get my child vaccinated.”

As she spoke I wondered how many women were terrified of taking their children for vaccinations because of such treatment from nurses. Such inhumane treatment from the very people who were supposed to help them. The very people who were supposed to be on the front lines of ensuring that we keep our children alive.

So are we getting there? With stories like this you tell me.

Another mom told me how nurses had refused to give her clean sheets after she delivered her baby. During her duration in hospital she slept on bloody sheets.

Another mom had a c-section and was refused pain meds after that major operation- just because the nurses didn’t like her.

Some stories are more horrific and deserve more than a one liner…

I have never argued that we don’t have challenges and structural issues in the public health care system.

I have spoken to some fantastic health care providers in the public health care space and know that there really are individuals who care. But that is not enough.

The bullying and victimization of our moms in public hospitals must stop.

And it will only stop when we, not only make a noise about what’s happening, but choose to come up with solutions on how we can change the situation.

In essence we need to reward the health care providers who are doing a great job and treating moms and their babies with dignity and respect.

And we need to send a message to bullying nurses and other professionals in the public health care system that we will not stand by and watch them sink our health care system further into their cesspools.

We need to tell them that this is South Africa. A country known for its love for freedom. A country known for a people who will not stand by and be victimised. A country that stands up for the down-trodden.

We need to tell them that in this country people don’t get abused just because they don’t have money. In this country the poor have their dignity recognized and they too can be proud of being part of this great nation.

I’ve never been more hopeful for change in South Africa as I am about the situation in Public Health Care changing for the better.

I refuse to see South Africa mentioned again in some US show on some humiliating treatment of our people. That is not who we are.

My next step is to document the stories of the women I’ve come across in a short film.

I will need help with making the film happen.

I will also need help in creating awareness for women who need public health care so that they can know that they are not powerless.

And I need help connecting with the right people to create a system that rewards outstanding health care providers and at the same time uproots the rot.

Nelson Mandela is quoted to have said: “It seems impossible until it’s done.”

I believe this will get done.


If you want to help or have suggestions that we, the people, can fulfil- please leave a comment or email me directly at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *