LIMPOPO PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT: This is not the first time Phophi Ramathuba has sparked controversy

By Nomsa Maseko
BBC News, Johannesburg

An investigation has been launched in South Africa following comments made on camera by a health official to a Zimbabwean patient being treated in hospital that have gone viral.

Dr Phophi Ramathuba is seen chastising the woman who had been in a car accident in neighbouring Zimbabwe, but went to South Africa for treatment.

“You are killing my health system,” the provincial health minister says.

Dr Ramathuba has rejected criticism that her comments were xenophobic.

The patient, who cannot be seen in the video, is reportedly an undocumented Zimbabwean. She was waiting for surgery at a government hospital in the town of Bela-Bela, in the South African province of Limpopo, which borders Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.

In the video, which was first posted on Limpopo’s health department Facebook page earlier this week, Dr Ramathuba told the woman that Zimbabwe must take responsibility for her health issues, not South Africa.

Leaning over the patient’s bed, the minister says that Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa does not contribute to South Africa’s health budget, and that her country’s health system is not a “charity”.

Her comments come at a time of heightened tension towards foreigners in South Africa, and she has been accused of blaming foreign nations for the country’s ailing healthcare system.

“You speak Shona? Then how do you find yourself in Bela-Bela when you are supposed to be with Mnangagwa… you’re killing my health system,” she says in the video, referring to Zimbabwe’s most-spoken language.

“You are supposed to be with Mnangagwa, you know he doesn’t give me money to operate on you guys, and I’m operating with my limited budget…

“That is why when my people want health services, they can’t get [them]. And that is endangering the community… this is unfair,” Dr Ramathuba says, to laughter and murmurs of agreeance from onlookers in the ward.

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The comments made by the doctor-turned-politician have sparked a storm of controversy. While some agreed with her, others labelled Dr Ramathuba xenophobic, unethical and insensitive.

“With due respect, you don’t tell this to a patient waiting for medical treatment,” wrote Twitter user Palesa Morudu Rosenberg. “What must she do now after this disgraceful speech? Get off the bed?”

Others – both in South Africa and Zimbabwe – said the provincial health minister was right in her concerns.

“She is being realistic, the patient wasn’t chased away but treated, and the challenges discussed with a patient,” another Twitter user wrote.

A victim of politics

Dr Angelique Coetzee from the Solidarity Doctors Network said the patient was a victim of politics between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“Even if they cross the border illegally to get health services, it’s not their fault. She wasn’t supposed to embarrass the patient in front of people,” Dr Coetzee told The Times newspaper.

However even if the issues she raised were pertinent, it was the wrong time, place and person, Bongani Mkwananzi from the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa told the BBC.

“Dr Ramathuba has better proximity to Zimbabwe’s president, more than the humiliated patient will ever have, so she knows what channels to follow,” he said.

Mr Mkwananzi added that the patient was at the mercy of the health official’s “cheerleaders” – those watching on and laughing as she chastised the injured woman. He said efforts were now underway to find the patient and settle her hospital bill through crowd funding.

Opposition political parties Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters are demanding Dr Ramathuba’s resignation and say she should be reprimanded for humiliating the patient.

However, Dr Ramathuba is standing by her comments, because Limpopo has an “influx of foreign nationals who are choking the province’s health system resulting in doctors often working under pressure”.

She also says her comments should not be misconstrued as xenophobic, because the patient told her that she’d been in a car crash in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, and was advised to cross the border to South Africa to seek medical attention.

But as well as the tensions with foreigners, this controversy also comes at a time when South Africa is tightening its immigration policy. It is ending most special permits for foreigners that allow them to live and work in the country – including for Zimbabweans.

A similar permit for Angolan residents was terminated in 2021, and another one for Lesotho nationals to live and work in South Africa expires in 2023.

A spokesman for the Zimbabwean government, Nick Mangwana, said in a statement that it would not comment on Dr Ramathuba’s remarks, but would provide the necessary assistance to the patient.

He defended Zimbabwe’s healthcare system, saying “we are also pouring a lot of investment in our health facilities in all parts of the country so as to improve the clinical care available to the citizenry”.

This is not the first time Dr Ramathuba has made headlines for controversial remarks – in January she was admonished for telling schoolgirls to “open your books and close your legs” in a bid to encourage abstinence and reduce teenage pregnancies.

Source: BBC News

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