Thursday, July 19, 2012

The new apartheid

Rina Venter, the National Party's health minister, talks of how F W de Klerk, the last apartheid president, had asked her to get rid of racial discrimination in the country's health system. Venter convened the state law advisers and repeated the request to them - only to find out that there were, in fact, no laws in place to segregate state hospitals and never had been. Hospital administrators and doctors had implemented an inhumane system largely because they believed it was expected of them to do so.

 Now South Africa's healthcare system can essentially be divided into public and private. Out of 49 million people, some 8 million are covered by health insurance, referred to as medical schemes. It is a system where the scheme makes no profit but those who are paid from it - private hospitals, doctors, et cetera - do. Up until a short while ago, the division may have appeared racial. Most of those with health insurance were white, while blacks mainly used the public health system. But now, of the eight million with health insurance, approximately half are black. The private healthcare system features world-class hospitals, the most advanced equipment and the best doctors - for most will work where they can earn the best salary.

The majority of those using the public health system are still black and poor. The starkest contrast between public and private healthcare in South Africa is to be found not in the colour of its patients but in the facilities it offers. Run-down buildings, missing medication and widespread corruption characterise the public health system, and not a day passes without a story about broken equipment leading to deaths or facilities closing because they cannot afford to pay their creditors. 40 million South Africans - and an additional approximately three million refugees - must rely on a system that is falling apart.

It is a different apartheid.

"Our people need proper housing, not ghettos like Soweto." These were the words of Nelson Mandela to tens of thousands at Soweto's Soccer City Stadium just one day after his release from 27 years behind bars in 1990. Soweto, whose name is taken from the first two letters of "South Western Townships", was known as the capital of black South Africa. Originally established for labourers in western Johannesburg's mines in the late 19th century, it became home to black families forcibly removed from areas around Johannesburg and other parts of the country.

Today, Soweto has become a microcosm of the prosperity, poverty and everything in between experienced by the black population of today's South Africa. "Our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities," read the Freedom Charter. However, just opposite the raitracks near Water Sisulu Square are rickety, one-room homes with roofs made from corrugated zinc. Inside the narrow alleyways where children run shoeless lives 41-year-old Bob Nameng, the founder of Soweto Kliptown Youth. SKY provides shelter to more than 70 black children from impoverished communities in and around Johannesburg. Nameng listed a number of difficulties that Kliptown and other poor Sowetan communities face, and said the government is making little effort to fix them. "The situation is getting worse and worse," he said. Crime, drug use, HIV and rape continue to be real fears for communities across the country, and especially in densely populated areas like Soweto.

Shops like McDonalds, KFC, Timberland and Levi's opening at the Maponya Mall which has received widespread praise as the first of its kind in an area like Soweto. Nameng isn't excited. "I feel it's a monster, it's swallowed so many small businesses. It's deprived so many poor women and youth a chance to be able to put bread on their table." The poor people from the area now have to travel miles into Johannesburg to find affordable goods that are no longer available in Soweto. Nameng, like many blacks in South Africa, have grown disheartened by the post-apartheid era as most of the country's land and wealth has remained in the hands of the white minority. "At first we were complaining about the white government, which was the oppressor. Fine, so we've got a black government now in power. What now? It's the same old boring song," Nameng said

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