SA healthcare must put the people first

AN army helicopter flies over Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Our nation’s many inventions in the healthcare sector have been instrumental in the role of addressing the needs of our society. Picture: Werner Beukes Independent Newspapers

AN army helicopter flies over Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Our nation’s many inventions in the healthcare sector have been instrumental in the role of addressing the needs of our society. Picture: Werner Beukes Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 17, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

SOUTH Africa is rooted in a deeply tumultuous history, riddled with racial injustice, prejudice and discrimination that remanded millions of citizens to poverty and subjugation.

Today, South Africa is hailed for its cultural and ethnic diversity, and is currently advancing towards its seventh democratic elections on May 29. What is less commonly known is that South Africans are world-renowned for their scientific and technological innovations.

The field of scientific and technological advancements is often regarded as isolated from the social arena of our society. However, scientific and technological advancements have been persistently present in the South African context and have widespread influence in our everyday lives.

The development of a myriad mechanisms that are crucial in our modern healthcare sector is particularly attested to by South African intellectuals.

Indeed, it is the locals of Mzansi who are the acclaimed inventors and trailblazers of the world’s first heart transplant, diagnostic X-ray system (CAT scan), electricity-free foetal heart monitor and affordable skin transplant, to name a few.

This not only results in South Africans having uninhibited access to these technologies, but also to the intellectualism behind the development of such inventions. Furthermore, it allows our contemporary intellectuals to further develop and advance the knowledge and inventions that are right here at home.

Other major innovations by South Africans include the smart lock safety syringe, the vitrectomy cutter used in eye surgeries, and the retinal cryoprobe for cataracts and cryosurgery.

Solar power was also revolutionised in 1993, with Professor Vivian Albert’s invention of thin-film solar module technology that made solar power five times cheaper.

Computicket, the world’s first digital ticketing system and the largest electronic distributor of ticketing services in South Africa, was established by a Benoni local, Percy Tucker, back in 1971.

Another of the inventions that are commonly used in swimming pools across the globe is the automatic pool vacuum, invented back in the 1960s, which gave rise to the popular Kreepy Krauly and The Pool Ranger.

These are just a few of the countless inventions that originate from South Africa, and that expand beyond the healthcare arena into the infrastructural development arena, the agricultural arena, and beyond that. Our own discoveries and intellectual property permeate our society, and many of us sadly do not have a clue about this.

What these innovators and trailblazers prove is that knowledge production is absolutely essential to a thriving society, particularly because it fosters individuals that embody informed, progressive and creative outlooks.

It allows society to address complex concepts and problems more efficiently. Knowledge is at the root of individual and collective empowerment.

It is not only vital for the promotion of socio-economic development, but also for the propagation and proliferation of our innovations, inventions, and intellectual property.

Ultimately, an efficient, well-functioning society is one that sustains and strengthens its citizenry. Our nation’s many inventions in the healthcare sector have been instrumental in the role of addressing the needs of our society.

South Africa has a highly fractured and unequal healthcare system. In a nation where over half of the population lives below the poverty line, the high cost of private healthcare is gravely inaccessible.

Our state-funded public healthcare system ultimately sustains the hefty 84% majority of our citizenry, while only 15.8% use private healthcare systems. This translates to 17 in 100 South Africans who are currently medical aid beneficiaries.

Public healthcare systems are provided by the government and are significantly less costly to access. Although fewer medical services may be provided, public health systems often grapple with backlogs and delays. Private healthcare is financially demanding, but typically offers a wide array of services, modern facilities, and swift services in emergencies.

One strategy that has been notable in addressing the disparity between these two systems is the National Health Insurance (NHI). The NHI Bill, passed in June 2023, aims to transform the healthcare sector by providing access to quality affordable healthcare for all South Africans.

The bill entails co-operation between the NHI, public health and private health sectors. Ultimately, the NHI fund will cover the cost of health benefits for every South African, regardless of employment status, financial status, or proximity to healthcare services.

The NHI strategy is pertinent to South Africa now more than ever. The cost of living has stratified, leaving many already-impoverished communities in a dire living situation.

Public health care is inaccessible or insufficient in many cases, and it should not be the only option available in society. Adequate healthcare is a fundamental human right and needs to be achieved in order for our society to prosper.

Access to affordable and sustainable healthcare systems results in a healthier and more productive citizenry, which results in the development and amplification of our society.

The advancement of the NHI fund would prove the prioritisation of the citizens by the government and show a meaningful shift towards the upliftment of our society at large.

We cannot allow the medical and pharmaceutical industry to deter an initiative that would benefit millions of people on the basis of greed-mongering and profit margins.

This would deter the financial strain of healthcare on citizens, mitigate illnesses, mitigate household and institutional viruses, and improve productivity and development overall. The key concern needs to be the betterment of the citizenry, as this directly results in the betterment of our society.

As neuroscientist and best-selling author Abhijit Naskar poetically stated: “The health of the society is only a reflection of the health of the individual.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a gender activist and a columnist for the Sunday Independent and IOL. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.