Tygerberg Hospital took it too far with teacup storm over three doctors
But it’s often such ostensibly trifling sketches that best encapsulate a person, a situation, a nation. And it’s often these small things that trigger our delight or dismay.
The storm in a teacup around three young Western Cape doctors is one of those nominally minor matters that turns out to illustrate deeper realities. It’s certainly a keeper for my loose-leaf folder to be filed under any of South Africa’s worst public service failings - workplace pettiness and spite, bullying and envy; organisational dysfunction; gutless leadership; bureaucratic arrogance; and legal over-reach.
The three interns, Drs Mathew de Swardt, Kim Morgan and Manie Domingo, all at various stages of anaesthetics specialisation at Tygerberg, had scavenged from an outdoor dump of written-off, broken hospital furniture, two weathered chairs.
The motivation was that with some DIY and TLC, the two rain-rotted items could be resuscitated. They would have a new life in the doctors’ tearoom, which the ringleader of this band of desperadoes, De Swardt, was sprucing up, out of his own pocket.
Then came the bureaucratic s***tstorm.
Although the trio had verbal permission, had checked through security and this had all taken place in full view of CCTV, they were charged with theft.
Apparently, union officials had put pressure on the hospital’s management to act against these professional staff with the same alacrity that it dealt with the transgressions of administrative and service employees.
A kangaroo court, masquerading as a departmental disciplinary hearing, was set up. Despite an array of witnesses testifying to the veracity of the doctors’ account, the findings - the Health Department, to date, refuses to release the full record - were harsh.
El capo, De Swardt, was summarily dismissed. His henchmen, Morgan and Domingo, were sanctioned to a month and a fortnight unpaid leave, respectively, and given final warnings.
As the SA Society of Anaesthesiology pointed out, De Swardt would not be able to complete his training and the public service careers of two senior registrar anaesthetists had been sullied. Although Domingo had by now left the public service, he would not “escape the clear implications of a guilty finding”.
It’s tempting simply to skewer the hearing’s presiding chair since, on the face of it, she was either unusually incompetent or dancing to a political tune. But rather the buck should stop with the executives of Tygerberg Hospital and Western Cape Health. That’s where the dimple-bottomed managerial drones hum lazily around the honeycomb, sipping tea.
It was under the uncomprehending, glazed-eye watch of these useless functionaries that this all took place. What a dereliction of oversight on their part; such a failure of character.
The response to the harsh sanctions was explosive. After TimesLive broke the story, it rocketed around the social media world to widespread disbelief and anger. A hastily launched petition, demanding the doctors’ reinstatement, garnered 16000 signatories in a couple of days.
Western Cape Health hastily retreated. On Wednesday, just days after the furore went viral, they backed down. The verdicts were reversed with immediate effect - reduced to written warnings. This will have to do, though a public apology would have been nice. One wonders, also, what other disciplinary miscarriages of justice lurk in the Western Cape Health files.
Attorney Michael Bagraim, who acted for De Swardt and Morgan and is also a DA shadow minister, said the enormous support from not only the medical profession but the general public “undeniably” drove the department’s internal review.
Bagraim takes obvious pleasure in quoting the Latin maxim that translates “the law does not concern itself with trifles”, meaning, in this case, there was never any credible charge deserving of such a draconian legal response.
Clearly so. On the positive side, this is a “trifle” that explains in a snap why the public service is bleeding professional staff and why many doctors are considering emigration.
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