“I am grateful to hear that the government provides these things called ambulances. I have never seen an ambulance in my area.” – testimony from Xhora Mouth resident

EAST LONDON, 30 March 2015 – Two years ago, Nqileni Village in the Xhora Mouth area laid a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) about the lack of emergency medical services (EMS) in their community. On 25 and 26 March 2015, the SAHRC held a provincial hearing on EMS in the entire Eastern Cape province. The panel, comprising Deputy Chair Pregs Govender, Commissioner Bokankatla Malatji and Dr Prinitha Pillay heard from community members from four areas in the province, as well as from representatives of the provincial Departments of Health, Planning and Treasury, and Roads and Public Works.

The statements of and stories emerging from the communities represented at the hearing were tragic and moving. The hearing heard from Xolisile Sam of Isilatsha Village, who lost his sister after five days of struggling to get an ambulance to attend to her; from Zukile Madikizela of Lusikisiki who spoke of the range of steps he took to secure an ambulance and emergency care for a patient over the course of ten days. Nomalinge James, a community health care worker in Nier Village, spoke of the high mortality rate of babies in her village as a result of the lack of ambulance services. For her, the centralization of ambulance call centres has been problematic because villagers from Ngqushwa Village have to call East London and hope that the call centre agent would be able to describe their location (where there are no addresses and people rely on knowledge of the local terrain). This accentuated the problem, with the few ambulances that may have been dispatched getting lost.

The hearing had the feel of a truth and reconciliation commission. Department officials shifted in their seats as people from across the province described the loss of children, parents, siblings and neighbours and the financial implications of having to pay for transport using their grants to ensure that loved ones access care in an emergency because ambulances never arrive.

The Superintendent General for Health, Dr Thobile Mbengashe, and the Chief Director of Clinical Support Services, Mr Sibusiso Zuma, were among those who made statements and answered questions. The short time available meant that the questions of the panel could not all be answered and the Departments have two weeks to respond to outstanding questions. A report from the Human Rights Commission, making recommendations on steps to be taken, is expected in 60 days.

Emergency Medical Services are an essential part of our right to health. ECHCAC congratulates the SAHRC for holding this hearing. Enormous expectations have been raised. ECHCAC awaits the report and commits to ensuring that the recommendations will be carried out by the government. We are committed to ensuring that the unnecessary loss of lives, as well as community members’ out-of-pocket expenditures for private cars ends. We have suffered for too long.

Many community representatives lamented the lack of engagement with various provincial departments. Information provided by the Department of Health in particular was deemed inconsistent and insufficient by the panel. ECHCAC urges the various departments not to wait for the SAHRC’s report and to ensure that they follow the Batho Pele principles, which espouse openness and transparency and extensive and regular community engagement, among other things.

ECHCAC also urges the provincial Department of Health in particular to apologise to the people of the Eastern Cape for the unnecessary loss of countless lives as a result of the state of ambulance services. These could have and should have been avoided.

For more information, please contact:

Fikile Boyce, ECHCAC coordinator, 073 080 5379

Mluleki Marongo, 078 105 8802

For media related queries, please contact:

Ngqabutho Mpofu, SECTION27, 061 807 6443

Mary-Jane Matsolo, Treatment Action Campaign, 079 802 2686