Cape Town - When Dr Elizabeth Augustine and her husband, Florian, spoke of leaving their home in Derby in the UK to work in South Africa’s public health system, their friends and family discouraged them.
Not only were they going to take huge salary cuts as doctors and work under strenuous conditions, but the violence in the country worried their loved ones.
But the couple’s passion to do developmental work, in less privileged communities, overcame apprehension, and in 2009 they booked their tickets for Cape Town, bringing with them their two children Luke, then 9, and Sita, then 4.
On Tuesday last week, after working in Khayelitsha for five years, Elizabeth Augustine came face to face with danger and violence when she was attacked by a mob of angry protesters who pelted her car with stones.
She was hit in the face and her car was badly damaged.
Now Augustine, who is doing locum work in Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain, is considering going back to the UK.
“The attack has left me shaken… in fact I feel defeated as a doctor. I was still recovering from the brutal killing of a colleague (Dr Michael Aluko) not so long ago… and now this. I still love working in Khayelitsha because I know that I’m making a difference in people’s lives there, but I’m not sure if it’s worth working there if my life is in such danger. My work permit expires next year and I’m not sure if I want to renew it. My husband and I had a discussion about moving back home, and we are seriously considering it.”
Augustine was on her way home to Somerset West from the new Mitchells Plain Hospital, but when she tried to reach Baden Powell Drive she was turned back by police, who had closed a section of the road. She tried another route and was turned back again. On her third attempt, when approaching Baden Powell Drive from Ntlazane Road in Enkanini, Khayelitsha, she came across an angry crowd protesting against evictions in the area.
Augustine had assumed the road was closed because of a car crash.
“When the police turned us back they never communicated any protest to us… they just used hand signals to divert motorists. Even when I approached these protesters in Ntlazane Road I still assumed that people had gathered there to witness an accident. I was surprised when the first stone was thrown at me.”
After a volley of stones and rocks hit her car, smashed her windows and hit her body, Augustine drove on until she came across metro and traffic police less than a kilometre down the road.
She was shaken, bleeding, and covered in glass, but what irked her most was the response of the police when she asked why they were not present at the protest.
“They casually told me that they couldn’t be everywhere. They didn’t seem concerned that motorists were attacked. My two pharmacy colleagues from Kleinvlei and Helderberg Hospital were also attacked in that protest, but fortunately they were not injured. I was also fortunate that my car had smash-and-grab film on its windows… I know things could have been worse. Judging by the size of the rocks thrown at me I could have died,” she said.
Police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk confirmed that Augustine had opened a case with the police following the attack.
“We can confirm that there was a protest where residents demanded vacant land to build shacks but were denied by the authorities. Police were monitoring the situation and alerting the motorists about the ongoing protest and diverting them to other routes for their safety. The investigation continues and no arrests have been made as yet,” he said.
Augustine’s attack was a second violent attack on a Khayelitsha doctor. Last month, Dr Michael Aluko, another locum doctor working at the Khayelitsha Community Health Centre and Khayelitsha Hospital, was shot dead in a suspected hijacking while buying food. The attack raised safety fears among the medical fraternity and health activists in the area.
This week Gugulethu residents also raised the alarm about the safety of doctors and public health users in that township, following a spate of robberies near the Gugulethu Community Health Centre. A local policing forum warned that such attacks might end up driving doctors and nurses out of the township.
Dr Mark Sonderup, deputy chairman of SA Medical Association, also warned that the increase in the number of attacks on medical staff, including ambulance staff, could have a negative impact on health services in high-risk areas.
He called on communities to “root out” the culprits.
“Medical personnel often take these jobs in these areas because they want to serve communities, but if such attacks continue unabated people are not going to risk their lives by working there. Unfortunately it’s the very same communities that will suffer at the end of the day.”