Opinion

A dysfunctional Western Cape Health suffers a deservedly humiliating defeat

A dysfunctional Western Cape Health suffers a deservedly humiliating defeat
A vindictive, protracted and costly campaign by Western Cape Health against three young doctors for “unlawfully removing two blue chairs with the intent to permanently deprive Tygerberg Hospital of its possessions” is at last over. And it ends in a deservedly humiliating defeat for the over-zealous bureaucrats.

After an appeal, heard over three days by the sectoral bargaining council, the department’s earlier heavy-handed disciplinary sanctions were ruled “substantively unfair”. Commissioner Gail McEwan further ordered the expungement of the theft finding from the doctors’ employment records.

The storm in a teacup, which nevertheless spotlights failings in Western Cape Health’s attitude towards its professional staff, as well as a cavalier approach to administrative transparency, has continued.

The department had fired Dr Mathew de Swardt and suspended Dr Kim Morgan and Dr Abdurragmaan Domingo in the final year of specialisation, after they “stole” two broken chairs. The chairs had been dumped on an outdoor heap of furnishings and building rubble.

The doctors wanted to fix the chairs for use in the staff tearoom, which they had been renovating. As De Swardt explained: “I thought I was doing something nice.”

That’s not how the Tygerberg apparatchiks saw it. When it was made clear that they had not followed hospital administrative and security protocols, the trio immediately returned the chairs, but, to their consternation, months later the hospital bosses laid formal charges of theft.

Morgan was hauled out of surgery when cops arrived to arrest the three. But the police left empty-handed when it was pointed out that the chairs had never been stolen and were, in any case, back on the rubbish pile.

Thwarted at jailing the desperado decorators, the bureaucrats upped their campaign of pettiness and poison. A full eight months after the heist-that-never-was, a disciplinary inquiry headed by a transparently pliant outside consultant, Shameem Modack-Robertson, found the three guilty of theft, with the sentence being the firing of the criminal mastermind, De Swardt, and suspensions without pay for his sidekicks.

De Swardt was out of work. Domingo had by now left Tygerberg, but none would easily again find public sector employment with the label of “thief” around their necks. They also faced the prospect of disciplining by the Health Professions Council.

Fortunately, the public reaction was immediate. Western Cape Health was within hours cowering under a wave of criticism and disbelief, locally and from the South African diaspora.

Within 48 hours, the DA’s provincial health minister, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, had reversed the firing and suspensions. She announced that instead, all three were to be given written final warnings.

De Swardt and Morgan, represented throughout pro bono by labour lawyer Michael Bagraim, who is incidentally also the DA’s spokesperson on employment and labour, now approached the public health sectoral bargaining council to remove the theft slur.

Aside from vast financial costs and energy, the matter of the Armchair Gang does not reflect well on the reputation of Western Cape Health.

But this was only a single incident. So I was interested to look for a pattern in disciplinary actions against other professional staff, citing the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

The months have come and gone. I write regularly to the media relations person, Nomawethu Sbukwana, copy­ing her bosses, Marika Champion, head of communications, and Douglas Newman-Valentine, the head of ministry. I write also to Eugene Reynolds, the information officer tasked with dealing with PAIAs. Nothing has happened. No accountability.

A week ago, Mbombo told the media she opposed National Health Insurance because it would make Western Cape Health “useless and dysfunctional” by taking away the role of the department’s senior managers.

Nope, Dr M. Not possible. They’re already useless and dysfunctional. And very comfortable with that, too.

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