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My open letter to South Africa by Jay Naidoo (Daily Maverick), 11 September 2013, South Africa

12 September 2013

The people of Eastern Cape are dying. They die because the political elites plunder our public coffers and take the precious resources that are supposed to deliver the vital health services our people have a constitutional right to.

“Death and Dying in the Eastern Cape” is a report compiled by the Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27 on the collapse of health care services in the Eastern Cape. The report explains, “an investigation by the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) has found that over an 18-month period R800-million was stolen by public officials. As far as we know, no-one is in prison for this grand theft.”

Six million people depend on public health services in the Eastern Cape. Its collapse has been presided over by a parasitic elite that has, for over a decade, abused the public trust and used our public coffers as their private slush fund. This is a monumental cover up of Watergate proportions. But in our democracy it is conveniently swept under the table.

Reading it makes me rage. How many clinics could have been built, how many babies died because vaccines were not available or the cold chain was dysfunctional, how many nurses and doctors could have been hired to deal with the dire staff shortages? I reflect on the anger of the 1976 generation, which made millions of us stand up and build the powerful tsunami of struggle that toppled the brutal Apartheid regime.

I feel that anger rising again. Only this time it is against an oligarchy that we voted in, which has betrayed the foundations of our freedom struggle and today assassinates the hopes of our people to enjoy their constitutional rights to quality health and education.

The tragedy is that this is the very province that gave us the giants of our freedom struggle – Makhanda Nxele, who united the Xhosa tribes to resist colonialism in the Frontier Wars of the 18th century, and Nelson Mandela, the founding father of our democracy. That rich tapestry of revolution included many outstanding patriots, amongst them Steve Biko, Neil Aggett, Robert Sobukwe, Govan Mbeki and Chris Hani. We stood on the shoulders of these giants who sacrificed their lives so that our people could live in a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist SA.

Has their sacrifice been in vain? The jury is out.

Here in the Eastern Cape a predatory political elite stands on the shoulders of the people and defiles that proud history. Is it not time that as citizens we stood up to denounce this corrosive corruption that eats into the soul of our nation?

“The crisis of the health system is not an Apartheid-legacy, but a democratic failure. It is a crisis of management and political oversight. It is a crisis of the constitutional promise,” says Mark Heywood the executive director of Section 27. I agree with him.

“We say this because we know that there are financial and human resources available to provide health care in the Eastern Cape; there are committed nurses, doctors, community health care workers as well as other people who want to be trained to work in hospitals and clinics; there are systems which can be made to work to effectively distribute medicines, X-ray machines and other essentials to clinics. This is the story of a political failure,” the Report adds.

A society fails when we stop caring. It fails when those in power seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. It fails when the people lose trust in their leaders. It fails when leaders are so disconnected from the grassroots that the people feel disempowered in the democratic process. It fails when cadre development replaces competent civil servants with those who owe loyalty not to the Constitution and the people, but to party bosses.

We have a choice. We can take a stand and confront the abuse of power, or we can step back, do nothing and fall into an abyss of dashed hopes.

I believe the time has come to assert our constitutional rights. As Anele Yawa, TAC national chairman said, “It has to stop. In this respect, this report is not a mere journalistic exposé, but part of a social mobilization for the right to health that will only end when the problems it describes have been reversed.”

The fundamental right that bleeds from the heart of this report is found in section 27 of the Constitution. It is the right for “everyone to have access to quality health services”.

The Eastern Cape Health Crisis Action Coalition (ECHCAC), established in May 2013, will campaign for justice and an end to corruption with impunity. It will campaign for the dignified employment of health care workers and the filling of vacant positions. It will campaign to ensure that democratic and effective clinic committees and hospital boards are established. And it will campaign for a plan, timetable and resources to turn around the crisis reflected in the Report.

These are the demands made to the government, both national and provincial. The public needs a plan that defines the decisive action we want to see against corrupt bureaucrats. We want to see them fired and jailed. We want concrete steps with clear timeframes. And we want the end to the victimization of “whistleblowers”, those brave public servants and medical practitioners who have stood up and made their voices heard.

The national minister has set a valuable precedent by insisting on using public hospitals. Our goal should be for every civil servant and public representatives all the way up to the MECs to be compelled to use the public hospitals that have abandoned. Then they will understand what daily abuse the poor endure.

We must break the silence. I think every right-thinking South Africa democrat should support this campaign to reclaim our human dignity. As Biko articulated: “We have nothing to lose but our chains”. DM