Public health dominates S. Africa electioneering

By Hassan Isilow, Monday, March 31, 2014

JOHANNESBURG – As South African general elections draw closer, political parties are capitalizing on the country's ailing public health sector to score political gains.

"People wake as early as 4am to go the hospital, yet they have no guarantee of getting in," Papi Kganare, a representative of the Congress of the People (COPE) said during a campaign debate that also included two other opposition representatives and the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the latter of which was represented by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaled.

"Some hospitals lack running water and medicine for immunization," Kganare fumed.

The debate, broadcast live on national television, was held at the University of Free State in Bloemfontein to discuss the state of the public health system.

The main problems plaguing public health, say observers, include long lines at the nation's clinics and hospitals, inadequate numbers of doctors, and the poor attitude of some nurses towards patients.

"We can't blame apartheid for hospitals failing to pay their electricity or water bills," said Wouter Wessels of the Freedom Front Plus, a political party.

Patricia Copane of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) said the country had one of the world's lowest life expectancy rates and one of the highest rates of tuberculosis (TB) prevalence.

"South Africa remains second in TB [prevalence] at 144th out 146 countries [and] 136th out 148 countries in terms of life expectancy," she said, blaming the situation on resource mismanagement within the local health sector.

Health Minister Motsoaled, for his part, acknowledged the challenges facing the public health sector, while insisting there had also been some notable achievements.

"South Africa runs the biggest HIV/AIDS treatment program in the world," he said.

South Africa, which has one of the world's highest HIV prevalence rates, is also home to the world's largest anti-retroviral drugs program, used in the treatment of HIV patients.

Approximately 2.4 million people are currently taking the lifesaving drugs.

Motsoaled said the country also planned to implement a National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme, which he hopes will narrow the gap between the rich who can afford private healthcare and the poor who cannot.

"We have already selected 11 pilot districts [for the project]," he noted.

"We've sent engineers to look at infrastructure at hospitals and we're also looking at human resources," the minister added, without indicating when the project would start.

The Freedom Front Plus party's Wessels, for his part, struck back, saying: "It's typical that when government is in trouble they use electioneering talk. We need a quality healthcare system, not NHI."

South Africans will go to the polls on May 7 to elect a new president, lawmakers and city council representatives.

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