KwaZulu-Natal - The knives are out for Provincial Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo after his failure to account for the use of Durban’s sole medical helicopter to “quell a community uprising” in Hlabisa, Zululand, two weeks ago.
While Dhlomo rebuffed widespread criticism for commandeering the helicopter to save travel time to an outlying area, opposition MPs are demanding to know full details about the flight.
The Sunday Tribune can reveal that the MEC’s motorcade, leaving Durban early on the morning of November 3, met him at Hlabisa so that he could be transported from one meeting to another.
Dhlomo came under fire last week when it was alleged that 15-year-old Asheen Maharaj could not be airlifted from the scene of a horrific car accident near Shongweni because Dhlomo had commandeered the air ambulance.
Paramedics had called for the emergency chopper to airlift Maharaj, but they were told the MEC was using it and that a helicopter would be sent from Richards Bay.
The helicopter based at Richards Bay would have taken half an hour to get to the scene and medics opted to take Maharaj to hospital in an ambulance. The teen succumbed to his injuries in hospital this week.
ACDP MPL Joanne Downs said: “To use a helicopter which is on standby for emergencies is almost unforgivable, whether it would have made a difference in that boy’s life or not.
“We will not rest until the MEC explains himself candidly.”
IFP shadow minister of health Dr Usha Roopnarain said that Dhlomo’s explanation left her “dissatisfied at best”.
“I feel that the minister has been evasive consistently and he had the opportunity to provide an explanation of his whereabouts to the press and chose not to. If a doctor’s life really was in danger in Hlabisa, why did he need to intervene? That is the role of the portfolio committee for health, to deal with conflict of that nature. I want to see if any private visits were made on the day and have submitted parliamentary questions to that effect.
“I am horrified that he used a helicopter while his motorcade travelled to the same place. He needs to be brought to book,” she said.
DA MP Mark Steele said that the health department’s account of what the helicopter had been used for was inadequate.
“This is not a proper and adequate explanation. It is simple; the public needs to know the truth. We need to have a factual determination of what the chopper was used for, taking into account flight plans and passenger manifests. Until then speculation will continue to run rampant.
“There should be clear departmental policies in place to govern the usage of these helicopters and life-threatening emergencies should come first,” Steele said.
KZN Health Department spokeswoman Sebe Zwane confirmed that Dhlomo spent only two hours in Hlabisa, from noon to 2pm.
In the wake of the incident, Dhlomo told the Sunday Tribune that because he was a registered medical doctor, he could use the helicopter as he saw fit.
This week he refused to respond to questions put to him, and referred all queries to the health department. “I am aware that you have been looking into my movements. I will leave you to do all your fishing,” he said abruptly.
On Wednesday, KwaZulu-Natal health department head Sibongile Zungu told journalists that Dhlomo needed to intervene in a crisis in which a doctor at a state medical facility had allegedly had inappropriate contact with a young girl.
“I cannot explain more on the issue because it is very sensitive. I don’t want to compromise the doctor. People in the community had become very heated to the point where the doctor’s life was in danger. The MEC had to step in before the situation worsened,” she said.
She added that senior health officials often booked the emergency helicopter for administrative purposes because it saved travel time.
When Zungu was questioned on details of the flip, it emerged that while the MEC was on board the air ambulance, his motorcade had travelled to the same destination so that Dhlomo would have transport when he arrived.
“The MEC’s motorcade left Durban early in the morning for Umkhanyakude and met him there when he landed, so they could take him from one meeting to another,” she said, adding that Dhlomo travelled back to Durban by road while the empty air ambulance made the return trip. She would not comment on why Dhlomo had not travelled with his motorcade and insisted on flying to the outlying district.
When questioned, her panel of experts agreed that it would have been “more prudent” to have hired a private charter to transport the MEC rather than remove a scarce medical helicopter from operation.
The panel conceded that there was a need to be practical and that they were unable to predict when accidents would happen. “It would be too expensive to retain a commercial aircraft to transport officials. At the time paramedics had called for a helicopter to airlift Maharaj, Dhlomo had touched down in Hlabisa,” she said.
But questions persist about Dhlomo’s trip.
The Umkhanyakude district mayor and police denied any knowledge of an emergency on Saturday, November 3.
Mayor Jeffrey Vilane said: “I don’t know anything about a crisis involving a doctor and a young girl. If there was a groundswell of anger in the community and things were at boiling point, I would certainly be aware of it. “
In contradiction of Dhlomo’s version of events, Vilane said the MEC was scheduled to visit but cancelled at the eleventh hour. “We had been expecting MEC Dhlomo at the Manguzi Provincial Hospital to present an award of excellence, but he cancelled and sent an apology, saying the premier required him at a national council of provinces [NCOP] meeting.”
The Sunday Tribune understands that NCOP meetings do not take place at weekends, and started a full two days after the MEC’s official trip.
Police spokesman Thulani Zwane confirmed that a case of rape had been opened at the Hlabisa police station and said no arrests had been made.
“The docket has been referred to the public prosecutor for a decision on whether or not to proceed,” he said. “It is alleged that a 16-year-old girl was raped at a doctor’s house. This is all that we can divulge at this stage,” he said.
He added that no backlash from the community was reported to Hlabisa police.
Hlabisa Provincial Hospital manager Mrs D Zungu said that she had no knowledge of the incident and referred the matter to Department of Health communications officers.
An air traffic control operator at King Shaka International Airport, who asked not to be named, said that no flight plan had been logged for the air ambulance. “We have no details on our system. All we have is that the helicopter departed at 8.38am and had set their destination as Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital. Our records reflect that it didn’t even return on the same day,” the operator said.
Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman Marie Bray said flight plans had to be submitted and any failure to do this would result in action being taken against the service.
A source at Albert Luthuli said that the helicopter had touched down briefly at 9am to pick up Dhlomo before leaving again.
Dhlomo was spotted again later that evening at Umhlanga’s Coastlands Hotel, together with deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, at a South African Medical Association gathering.