The “emergency” embattled health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo had to attend using Durban’s sole medical helicopter, was a funeral in northern KZN, an investigation by the Sunday Tribune has found.
Dhlomo flew to Hlabisa for the funeral of Zacharia “Cliff” Zungu, husband of Hlabisa Provincial Hospital Manager Dawn Zungu.
The businessman was killed in a car accident near his home.
This is in stark contrast to the information released by the department of health at a press conference held after the trip, indicating that Dhlomo had urgently flown to Hlabisa to quell community unrest over a rape scandal involving a doctor and a 16-year-old girl from the district.
Dhlomo came under fire three weeks ago when it was alleged that 15-year-old Asheen Singh could not be airlifted from the scene of a horrific car accident on the N3 near Shongweni because the MEC had commandeered the air ambulance.
Paramedics called for the helicopter to airlift him but were told the MEC was using it and another medical helicopter would be sent from Richards Bay.
The helicopter based in Richards Bay would have taken half an hour to get to the scene. Medics opted to rush Maharaj by ambulance to the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital, where he died.
Barring the press briefing, the provincial health department has remained mum on the MEC’s use of the chopper.
KZN health department head Sibongile Zungu said at the press conference that the community of Hlabisa had become angry to the point where the doctor’s life was in danger. The doctor, the press was told, was from Hlabisa Provincial Hospital. However, when Dawn Zungu was approached to verify the tension at the hospital and the MEC being called to intervene, she said she knew nothing about it.
Following his flip, Dhlomo told the Sunday Tribune that because he was a medical doctor, he could use the air ambulance as he saw fit.
Repeated attempts to contact Dhlomo and the department of health had proved unsuccessful by the time of going to press.
Hlabisa Lutheran Church Pastor Ngubane, who would not give his first name, said the MEC had arrived by helicopter at the community hall where the funeral was being held.
“We had to hold the funeral at the hall because nearly 600 people arrived. The helicopter landed and everyone was looking around to see what was happening. He even arrived late,” Ngubane said.
He said Dhlomo had addressed the mourners and had offered his condolences to Zungu’s relatives.
Dhlomo’s driver and security detail purportedly rendezvoused with him at the funeral.
The pastor would not comment on the content of Dhlomo’s address.
A girl, who asked not to be named, said she saw the helicopter landing at the funeral hall on Saturday morning.
“I saw it from across the valley. I saw it land outside in a space that had been made for it. Everyone in the community knows that he came here for the funeral,” she said.
Nikiwe Xulu, who did the catering for the funeral, confirmed that she had seen Dhlomo at the gathering when she dropped off the food.
“I saw the MEC when I went there. He is such a lovely man,” she said.
Dawn Zungu said Dhlomo was not her personal friend or her late husband’s. She then referred all queries to the health department.
The relationship between Dhlomo and the Zungus is unclear at this stage.
This week, the DA in the KZN legislature made a formal application for a special debate on Dhlomo’s use of the helicopter, after the Sunday Tribune revealed that the MEC’s motorcade had driven to meet him in Hlabisa.
DA spokesman on Health, Mark Steele, said the matter required an urgent public interest debate.
“This is not simply about the MEC explaining himself to opposition MPPs. This is about acknowledging the Maharaj family and the public who rely on this service and offering a credible reason for his actions on that day,” he said.
“We will not accede to any attempts by the ANC to keep this matter quiet,” he added.
DA shadow minister of health Patricia Kopane on Monday gave AMS, who facilitate the medical helicopter on behalf of the KZN health department, three days to release information on Dhlomo’s flight.
A letter from AMS chief executive Phillip Erasmus to the DA referred all queries on the flight to the department of health.
IFP shadow minister of health Dr Usha Roopnarain said the truth about Dhlomo’s motives for visiting Hlabisa would inevitably surface.
“He has done so much spin doctoring around this issue and the truth finally came out. There has been no word from him or the health department on this issue since it reared its head, and his evasion shows he’s been hiding something all along,” she said.
ACDP MPL Joanne Downs criticised Dhlomo for spending unnecessarily. “It is fine for him to attend a funeral but it is not an emergency that warrants the use of a medical helicopter and taking it out of service for the day.
“If it was difficult to get to Hlabisa I would almost understand but it is perfectly accessible by road. He (Dhlomo) did mention at a meeting on Wednesday that he would hold a briefing about the flight but that has yet to happen,” she said. - Sunday Tribune