Free State’s R380 million ghost hospital, Albert Nzula Hospital stands almost empty after two years.
In the small Free State town of Trompsburg, a new R380 million hospital continues to gather dust more than two years since its completion. Meanwhile, other clinics and hospitals in the region remain overstretched and under-resourced, according to health activist groups.
Mariette Pittaway, the DA Spokesperson for Health in the Free State, says the new Albert Nzula Hospital is “state-of-the-art” and could “assist a lot of people in dire need,” but has become a “white elephant”.
“There’s no medical staff, no medical equipment, no patients. Nothing is happening. The hospital was scheduled to open in October 2014, but soon the place is going to start falling apart,” she told GroundUp.
An official opening ceremony was held at the Albert Nzula Hospital in September 2016, while controversial former MEC for Health Benny Malakoane had stated in March 2016 that the hospital would open in April 2016 (Malakoane was replaced by Butana Komphela in October 2016).
Free State Premier Ace Magashule had previously announced that the hospital was already “operational” during his state of the province address at University of Free State back in February 2016.
But when GroundUp visited the hospital premises at the end of November 2016, we were refused entry by a security guard; it was evident from outside that most of the buildings were still not in use, the public parking areas were empty, and some of the hospital entrances were cordoned off with yellow tape.
A number of infrastructural glitches including problems with the sewerage system initially delayed the hospital’s opening, and more recently there have been issues around filling the requisite staff posts.
When asked by GroundUp when the Albert Nzula hospital will be operational, Free State Department of Health spokesperson Mondli Mvambi replied:
“The operationalization of the hospital will be determined by the filling of some of the critical posts among the 197 critical posts identified for administrative support services and clinical posts.”
While Mvambi would not say how many of the 197 posts currently remain vacant, in October Health MEC Butana Komphela said in a Provincial Legislature meeting that only 77 posts had been advertised.
Mvambi also admits that some medical equipment and licences for the new hospital are still outstanding.
However, Mvambi told GroundUp that a dispensary and basic emergency medical response services are already operational at Albert Nzula Hospital, and GroundUp witnessed two ambulances returning to the hospital from a nearby road accident scene.
But in most instances, local residents are still restricted to the limited resources available at the small Mamello clinic on the other side of Trompsburg, or have to travel further afield to Diamant District Hospital in Jagersfontein, which is roughly 50kms away.
An employee at Diamant Hospital, who asked not to be named for fear of losing her job, says that the hospital is currently having to accommodate patients from nine different communities, and is generally overcrowded and significantly understaffed.
Enoch Moware, Acting Manager for Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in the Free State, affirms that Jagersfontein is in a “very poor state.”
“There’s a lack of doctors, a lack of nurses. The dispensary is closed on weekends. There’s no radiography on weekends. There are many, many such problems,” he says.
Moware adds that similar issues are mirrored in most government hospitals across the province. “People in Free State are fed up with the health system,” he says, “many people are dying in our hospitals because they are not being rendered basic services.”
Moware told GroundUp that he had sent a list of questions to the Free State Ministry of Health at the beginning of November concerning numerous complaints about the province’s hospitals that TAC had received from patients; TAC also requested updates on the Albert Nzula Hospital. Moware says the department is yet to respond.
Meanwhile, on a busy weekday morning at Mamello Clinic in Trompsburg, a number of patients in the crowded waiting room told GroundUp that they currently have to travel as far as Bloemfontein, which is roughly 120kms away, for some medical services.
Lena Oliphant, 60, claims that Trompsburg residents were told earlier this year that the dispensary at Albert Nzula Hospital was now providing medication for chronic patients, but that on visiting the hospital she had been unable to obtain her diabetes medication. According to her, “there’s no medication there”.
Moware says that Oliphants’ claim is supported by various other patients who have contacted TAC.
Oliphant also told GroundUp that she has to travel to Bloemfontein every three months for cancer treatment. She adds that the costs of transport into the city can be crippling for some Trompsburg residents.
“I hope and pray they will open the hospital soon,” Oliphant says, “many people here need it urgently.”
But Dr Disie Kleingeld, a local private GP who volunteers his mornings at Mamello Clinic, says that the Albert Nzula Hospital is being pushed “on a political level rather than a practical one.”
“It would be more appropriate to improve resources at existing sites. There are not enough medical staff to run a new hospital.”
Free State experienced an exodus of 177 doctors back in 2015, as the provincial health system fell apart. In February 2015, a number of Free State doctors had highlighted shocking management failures and hospital conditions in an open letter published by GroundUp.
According to Mark Heywood, Executive Director of public interest law centre Section27, the state of existing hospitals in Free State remains “extremely bad.”
“All we’ve had are negative reports. And instead of cooperation from the Department of Health, what we continue to encounter for the most part are stories of corruption and mismanagement. That’s what we are dealing with.”
By Christopher Clark
South Africa Today – South Africa News