The high cost of doing the right thing

Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria. File picture: Oupa Mokoena

Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria. File picture: Oupa Mokoena

Published Jun 12, 2016


I bumped into Philani* during yet another fruitless visit to a public hospital, where I had accompanied someone who was attempting to obtain follow-up medical treatment after being tortured by police last year.

I had not seen Philani since I assisted him access the witness protection programme several years ago. He was not a happy man.

“The government must help me,” Philani said in desperation. “I did my best, I did everything I was supposed to, now my children are starving. They can’t just leave us like this.”

Philani had good reason to be upset. He had been the complainant in an attempted murder case against a notorious warlord and his accomplices. During the attempt on his life, Philani had sustained serious injuries that had left him partially deaf, with permanent tinnitus, dizziness and other disabling physical and psychological conditions.

Philani had been determined to do the right thing and opened a case with the police. The key witness - at great personal risk due to his involvement in another matter for which he was later killed - had also provided a statement. It should have been simple to bring Philani’s would-be killers to book.


But no one factored in the obstructive role of the state, which, increasingly, through its discriminatory, anti-poor bureaucracy, corruption and utter dysfunction, pushes poor people who wish to do the right thing, to the very margins of survival.

Philani had been one of the few who had had a regular job, and, even though poorly paid, he could most months at least, still feed his large family.

One of the responsibilities of the witness protection programme is to provide material support for the witness and their family equal to the standard of living experienced prior to their admission into the programme. Employers are also not permitted to dismiss programme participants, although some still do. Philani had enjoyed a good relationship with his boss and was assured his job would be waiting for his return.

So far so good, that is, until the case went to court. Although Legal Aid generally assigns inexperienced candidate attorneys to defend Schedule Five and Six offenders, this time, they had secured the pro bono services of a private criminal lawyer to represent the notorious warlord.

What strings were pulled behind the scenes we will never know, but the warlord was acquitted. The warlord’s accomplices were represented by a standard-issue, candidate attorney. When the matter finally went to trial, a couple of years after Philani’s attack, the accomplices were also acquitted.

According to Philani, who still bears horrific scars, the case had failed on a technicality. The district surgeon who had completed the medical report when Philani was first taken to hospital had failed to record that he had been “shot using a gun.” This meant that charges against Philani’s attackers were downgraded from attempted murder.

Other minor details had also been botched – by design or lack of diligent detective work, again, we will never know – but it had been enough to allow the accused to go free.

While in witness protection, Philani had been able to send home his state ‘salary’. Now he would now have to return to normal life living in close proximity to his attackers, who, naturally, remained none too pleased at the inconvenience to which he had put them. Plus the original motive for his attack remained – his name had not been crossed off their hitlist. Within days he was warned that hitmen had visited his employer’s premises asking his whereabouts. Members of his family also received threats. It was clear, if Philani returned to the job his employer had kept for him, he would very likely be killed.

Danger over?

Philani tried to discuss the problem with his boss. Unfortunately, his employer had swallowed recent ‘sunshine’ coverage of police ‘successes’ and government ‘peace negotiations’ at the hostel where Philani was resident, and was convinced the danger was now over and his fears unfounded. Philani was beside himself – forced to choose between a quick bullet and slow starvation for his family in the likely event the hitmen succeeded; or slow starvation for all of them because jobs are now almost impossible to find.

Although a peace initiative had indeed begun at the hostel, the process will be long and given the failure of similar measures previously, it remains to be seen whether the politicians’ ‘peace’ will in any case extend beyond local elections, only two months away.

Philani chose the slightly lesser of the two evils and ended his employment. He returned to his rural home where, he told me, his family of thirteen is now solely reliant on his mother’s state pension of R1 640 – or around R4 per person per day, not even enough to buy each child half a loaf of bread.

The injuries Philani had sustained need constant medical attention forcing him to make regular visits, sometimes several times a month, to a public health facility hundreds of kilometres from his rural home. To receive this treatment for free, he had to prove he is now unemployed or pay R65 per visit.

I asked Philani how one could prove one was unemployed. Apparently sworn statements attesting to one’s poverty had been previously accepted. This Philani had dutifully provided, which hospital administration had then promptly lost. He told me that during a previous visit he had learned the system had since been changed and he was required to visit the Department of Labour to collect a form which had to be taken to his previous employer for completion.

This must then be returned to the Department of Labour for them to issue a letter verifying his unemployed status, which in turn, must then be submitted to the hospital in order for him to receive free treatment.

Queues, delays, absentee staff and the usual institutional malaise of confusion, disorder and misinformation had forced Philani to make three attempts to complete this process, and cost him a substantial amount in transport. It is inconceivable, although not limited to the public health system, that poor people are regularly forced to outlay large sums of money they do not have, in order to prove their poverty.

As I had noticed Philani was holding a receipt for R65 I asked what had gone wrong with this excellent system. Sadly he shook his head. His employer, he said, had refused to sign the Department of Labour’s form.

“There is peace at Glebelands,” his employer had told him happily. “I saw all the police on TV. It’s safe now. Your job is waiting for you. You must come back. I can’t sign this form because I didn’t fire or retrench you – you left, that means you resigned, therefore I cannot sign this form.”

Like Philani, his former employer had, presumably, also been trying to ‘do the right thing’ by complying to the letter with government institutional requirements. Given the circumstances, however, the ‘right thing’ here had ‘wronged’ Philani further.

I did not ask Philani if he regretted his decision to ‘do the right thing’ – the bitterness and worry was clearly etched on his face and anger burned bright beneath the tears in his eyes. At Glebelands police have had much criticism for “poor cooperation from the community” hampering their investigations.

It remains to be seen how long Philani will be able to afford to access the public health system.

Hospital charges and transport cost R600 minimum, provided he spends nothing on food or drink during the three days each trip takes. Even if Philani visits the hospital only once a month, when these costs are deducted from his mother’s pension, family members will be left to survive on less than R2 per day.

[*Philani is not his real name. Details have been changed to protect his identity as he remains under threat of assassination. The man I had accompanied who had been tortured by police, was refused medical attention after waiting five hours to see a doctor.]

Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice. Her views do not necessarily represent those of IOL.


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