An investigation has been launched in South Africa after comments made on camera by a health official to a Zimbabwean patient undergoing treatment at the hospital went viral.
Phophi Ramathuba is seen punishing the woman who was in a car accident in neighboring Zimbabwe but went to South Africa for treatment.
“You are killing my health care system,” says the provincial health minister.
Dr. Ramathuba dismissed criticism that her comments were xenophobic.
The patient, who cannot be seen in the video, is allegedly an undocumented Zimbabwean. She was awaiting surgery at a government hospital in the town of Bela-Bela, in the South African province of Limpopo, which borders Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.
In the video, which was first posted on the Limpopo health department’s Facebook page earlier this week, Ramathuba told the woman that Zimbabwe should take responsibility for its health problems, not South Africa.
Leaning over the patient’s bed, the minister says that Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa does not contribute to South Africa’s health budget, and that his country’s health system is not a “charity”.
Her comments come at a time of heightened tension regarding foreigners in South Africa, and she has been accused of blaming foreign nations for the country’s ailing healthcare system.
“Do you speak Shona? So how do you find yourself in Bela-Bela when you should be with Mnangagwa…you are killing my healthcare system,” she says in the video, referring to Zimbabwe’s most widely spoken language.
“You should be with Mnangagwa, you know he doesn’t give me money to operate on you, and I’m operating on my limited budget…
“That’s why when my people want health care, they don’t get it. [them]. And that’s putting the community at risk… that’s unfair,” says Dr. Ramathuba, amid laughter and murmurs of agreement from onlookers in the ward.
The comments made by the doctor-turned-politician generated a storm of controversy. While some agreed with her, others labeled Dr. Ramathuba of xenophobic, unethical and insensitive.
“With all due respect, you don’t say that to a patient waiting for medical treatment,” wrote Twitter user Palesa Morudu Rosenberg. “What is she supposed to do now after that embarrassing speech? Get out of bed?”
Others – in both South Africa and Zimbabwe – said the provincial health minister was right in her concerns.
“She’s being realistic, the patient wasn’t scared away but treated, and the challenges discussed with a patient.” another twitter user wrote.
A victim of politics
Dr. Angelique Coetzee of Solidarity Doctors Network said the patient was a victim of the politics between South Africa and Zimbabwe.
“Even if they cross the border illegally to get health care, it’s not their fault. She shouldn’t embarrass the patient in front of people,” Coetzee told The Times.
However, even if the questions she raised were pertinent, it was the wrong time, place and person, Bongani Mkwananzi of the Community of Zimbabwe in South Africa told the BBC.
“Dr. Ramathuba is closer to the president of Zimbabwe than the humiliated patient will ever be, so she knows which channels to follow,” he said.
Mkwananzi added that the patient was at the mercy of the health officer’s “cheerleaders” – those who watched and laughed as she chastised the injured woman. He said efforts are underway to find the patient and pay the hospital bill through crowdfunding.
Opposition political parties Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters are demanding the resignation of Dr. Ramathuba and say she should be reprimanded for humiliating the patient.
However, Dr. Ramathuba stands by his comments, because Limpopo has an “influx of foreigners who are choking up the province’s healthcare system, resulting in doctors often working under pressure”.
She also says her comments should not be interpreted as xenophobic because the patient told her she had been in a car accident in the Zimbabwean capital Harare and was advised to cross the border into South Africa to seek medical attention.
But in addition to tensions with foreigners, this controversy also comes at a time when South Africa is tightening its immigration policy. It is doing away with most of the special permits for foreigners that allow them to live and work in the country – including for Zimbabweans.
A similar permit for Angolan residents was terminated in 2021 and another for Lesotho citizens to live and work in South Africa expires in 2023.
A spokesman for the Zimbabwean government, Nick Mangwana, said in a statement that he would not comment on Dr. Ramathuba, but would provide the necessary patient care.
He defended Zimbabwe’s healthcare system, saying that “we are also investing heavily in our healthcare facilities in all parts of the country to improve the clinical care available to citizens.”
This is not the first time that Ramathuba has made headlines for controversial comments – in January, she was warned for telling students to “open their books and close their legs” in a bid to encourage abstinence and reduce teen pregnancy.
Additional reporting by Tiffany Wertheimer