Durban - The outgoing head of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, Dr Sibongile Zungu, has had her good and bad days in office.
Having taken over a department which was R2.3 billion in the red, Zungu has had to make drastic changes, such as putting a stop to wasteful expenditure, as well as plundering in the department.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily News, Zungu, whose contract expires this month, said she was yet to decide on what she would do in future, and that she had a number of options to consider.
In 1991, Zungu was appointed inkosi for the Madlebe traditional authority in Empangeni, after her husband, an inkosi of the tribe at that time, died in a car accident in 1989.
In the wake of political instability and the assassination of three of the indunas who were close to her, she decided to leave for fear of her life and her children.
Zungu joined the Health Department in 1988 as an intern doctor at Ngwelezane Hospital. She resigned from the post in 1994 to pursue her studies in administration.
In 1996 she joined Catherine Booth Hospital near Amatikulu as principal medical officer. In May the same year, she was appointed senior medical superintendent.
It was during this time that she received the Martin Luther King jr Peace Award for her peace initiatives in Empangeni.
“Because of the violence at the time, I had to take my two daughters, aged 6 and 8 at that time, to boarding school. Those were difficult times, especially after my husband’s passing in 1989. We were four in the car and he died in the crash,” Zungu said.
She said there were some who were unhappy with her being an inkosi.
“The violence in 1997 was hovering around me and when the three izinduna were shot and killed in their homes, I decided to resign as inkosi, which is something unheard of in the Zulu tradition,” she said.
Zungu went to work in Sebokeng Hospital in the Vaal area as senior medical superintendent. She was then appointed chief executive officer of Dr George Mukhari Hospital, north of Pretoria.
In February 2003, she returned to KZN as the department’s chief director, institutional support services.
In 2004, she became the deputy director-general of health services. In 2007, she moved to Mpumalanga in an acting capacity as deputy director-general of health and social services.
Then, in August 2009, she was appointed the head of the department.
“When I joined the department it was with urgency because there was no HOD to do the handover, no CFO (chief financial officer) and there was no general manager: supply chain management. I found demoralised staff members. I had to juggle between the two provinces because for three months, I had to be in KZN for two days a week and in Mpumalanga for two days.”
She said it was an uphill battle taking the department forward as people were to be investigated, disciplined and some dismissed if found guilty of misconduct.
“Having looked into the existing documents, trying to work out how the department could have overspent by more than R2 billion, we reached a stage where we approached cabinet to request the creation of a joint management committee and work on how the department could have spent its funds,” she said.
“Through thorough investigations we found the leaks and people were disciplined. Some people were not happy with the changes, but they had to be implemented to save the department. There was paralysis because it was no longer a thing of spending without accounting.”
She said because of the suspensions, relations deteriorated and team spirit disappeared. “Some disgruntled staff members became stumbling blocks to progress.
“People would resign, leaving documents displaced or missing, and this made it difficult for audit. I bear no grudges. To whatever happens, I say, ‘Lord, have mercy on those who work against me.’”
Zungu said some hospitals had been in bad shape long before 1994.
“I remember in 2003, while Dr (Zweli) Mkhize was still health MEC, he had received calls from patients who have been ignored for hours in Addington Hospital. In return, he phoned me wanting to know what was going on. I went to the hospital and got there at about 10pm.
“Patients had not been attended to since 2pm. I was dressed in civilian clothes so the nurses on duty became rude when I asked for the sister-in-charge. They didn’t know who I was until the sister-in-charge appeared and witnessed the rudeness by the nurses. All they could do was apologise after realising who I was. That’s how bad the situation can be in other hospitals.”
Zungu believes the business models employed in running hospitals also contribute to failures in the department.
“It’s multiple factors that created the condition that state hospitals are in. Outsourcing of cleaning services, for example, might not be the solution to cleaning our facilities because contractors are not doing a good job if their work is not closely monitored.
“The way we structured the management of staff is problematic. It’s not easy to call an employee from another division to order because you can easily be told to back off because the employee doesn’t report to you. The issue of attitude is also not helping the situation.”
On ambulances and mortuaries, Zungu said she had made use of what she had inherited and that there were individuals who were dedicated to their jobs and there were those who were difficult to work with.
Asked what she thought about the call for her sacking and of her contract not being renewed after the excessive cellphone calls and data bundle bill was revealed, Zungu said: “Anyone who has gone oversees can attest to the amounts charged for cellphone calls by oversees countries.”
As her last days in office approached, Zungu said she had a number of options, including reapplying for the HOD position as it had been advertised.