Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo faced some tough questions when she visited the clinic in Hangberg this week.
The clinic was closed controversially after clashes between protesters and police on Thursday August 30 (“Clinic closes its doors,” Sentinel, September 7), but the health department reopened it after meeting with residents and community leaders.
Critics say the department should have consulted with the community before closing the clinic.
Staff are said to be shaken by frequent unrest in the area, and Dr Mbombo heard from doctors, pharmacists and nurses during her visit on Monday.
She said she knew staff were doing their best under difficult circumstances, and that “anything can happen” between them driving to and from work in Hangberg.
“I can understand it when staff say enough is enough. But we are going to ask the community to engage with us. The community has a social contract to make sure staff are safe.”
She said the clinic was not conducive for quality medical care: it was old and parking was inadequate.
“Then the outside environment impacts on staff as well. We are engaging with the community and civic associations, but we also understand that despite this, you still have your fears,” she told the staff.
One staff member admitted that he was fearful, having to encounter police nyalas and stone-throwing in the area.
“What if people do attack the clinic? I think about my family at home and what would happen if I was hurt. I feel like we’re sitting ducks, and that we are being held hostage by these situations,” he said.
Dr Mbombo said the situation was not unique to health-care workers in Hout Bay. The Lotus River clinic was in an area occupied by four rival gangs, and the neighbourhood watch there had devised a system to alert staff when it was unsafe to come to work.The MEC said there was no guarantee there wouldn’t be more unrest, particularly in the run-up to next year’s general election.
“When unrest happens, the clinic committees will communicate with the community not to come to the clinic. We are not presenting a ‘done deal’ thing, but my commitment is the safety of staff comes first.”
A nurse of more than 30 years appealed to the MEC to establish a new clinic as soon as possible because Hangerberg residents had come to her house looking for answers after the clinic had been closed.
There are plans to build a clinic on Hout Bay Common by 2021, but a major sewer line runs under the area, and engineers are looking for a way round that snag.
Ward councillor Roberto Quintas thanked the staff for returning to work when the clinic reopened.
“I know it wasn’t easy to close and reopen the clinic, but you showed a commitment to the community and an awareness of how important the clinic is,” he said. “Please don’t give up on Hangberg.”
Dr Mbombo met with residents and answered their questions. One of them, Natasha Meter, blamed the police for keeping the clinic staff hostage during the August 30 unrest.
“Why would the community want to harm the people who work for us?” she asked.
Another resident, Lee Smith, said he had never met one person in Hangberg who wanted to harm clinic staff.
“There have been so many issues in Hangberg in the last 18 months, but if you sit down with the community, they will tell you the truth. No one wanted to attack the staff, yet the community is being painted as dangerous,” he said.
“The protests are not there to inconvenience the health-care staff. There’s always more than one side to the story. There’s too many lies floating around here, but you need to get your facts from sources who actually know the truth.”
Roscoe Jacobs, of the Hout Bay Civic Association, said the community needed more than talk. People were frustrated, he said, because they had been waiting more than a decade for a decent clinic.
“We were also frustrated that we weren’t consulted in the decision to close the clinic,” he said, adding that Liz Huckle, of the Hout Bay Health Forum, should be commended for her community work.
Dr Mbombo agreed community engagement was “crucial” and pledged to return to Hout Bay for a public open day, where everyone’s views could be heard.