An investigation has been launched in South Africa after comments made on camera by a health worker to a Zimbabwean patient in hospital went viral.
Dr Phophi Ramathuba is seen punishing the woman who had a car accident in neighboring Zimbabwe but went to South Africa for treatment.
“You’re killing my health system,” says provincial health minister.
Dr Ramathuba has rejected criticism that her comments were xenophobic.
The patient, who is not seen in the video, is said to be undocumented from Zimbabwe. He was waiting for surgery at a government hospital in the town of Bela-Bela, in South Africa’s Limpopo province, which borders Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.
In the video, which was first posted on the Limpopo health department’s Facebook page earlier this week, Dr Ramathuba told the woman that Zimbabwe should take responsibility for her health issues, not South Africa.
Leaning over the patient’s bed, the minister says Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa does not contribute to South Africa’s health budget and that her country’s health system is not “charity”.
Her comments come at a time of increased tension towards foreigners in South Africa and she has been accused of blaming foreign nations for the country’s troubled healthcare system.
“You speak Shona? Then how come you’re in Bela-Bela when you’re supposed to be with Mnangagwa… you’re killing my health system,” she says in the video, referring to Zimbabwe’s most widely spoken language.
“You are supposed to be with Mnangagwa, you know he is not giving me money to operate on you, and I am operating on my limited budget…
“That’s why when my people want health services, they can’t get them [them]. And that puts the community at risk… that’s unfair,” says Dr Ramathuba, to laughs and murmurs of agreement from onlookers in the chamber.
The comments made by the doctor-turned-politician have sparked a firestorm of controversy. While some agreed with her, others called Dr Ramathuba xenophobic, immoral 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 he supposed to do now after that disgraceful speech? Get out of bed?”
Others – both in South Africa and Zimbabwe – said the provincial health minister was right in her concerns.
“She is realistic, the patient was not hunted but treated and the challenges were discussed with a patient.” another Twitter user wrote.
A victim of politics
Dr Angelique Coetzee from the Solidarity Doctors Network said the patient was a victim of politics between South Africa and Zimbabwe.
“Even if they cross the border illegally to get health services, it’s not their fault. He shouldn’t have embarrassed the patient in front of people,” Dr Coetzee told The Times newspaper.
But even if the issues he raised were relevant, it was the wrong time, place and person, Bongani Mkwananzi from the Zimbabwean community in South Africa told the BBC.
“Dr Ramathuba has better proximity to the president of Zimbabwe than the humiliated patient will ever have, so she knows what channels to follow,” he said.
Mr Mkwananzi added that the patient was at the mercy of the health worker’s “cheerleaders” – those who watched and laughed as she punished the injured woman. He said efforts are now underway to find the patient and settle her hospital bill through crowd funding.
Opposition political parties Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters are demanding Dr Ramathuba’s resignation and say she should be reprimanded for humiliating the patient.
However, Dr Ramathuba stands by her comments because Limpopo has an “influx of foreign nationals who are choking the province’s health system resulting in doctors often working under pressure”.
She also says her comments should not be misconstrued as xenophobic because the patient told her she had a car accident in the Zimbabwean capital Harare and was advised to cross the border into South Africa to seek medical attention.
But apart from tensions with foreigners, this controversy also comes at a time when South Africa is tightening its immigration policy. It abolishes most special permits for foreigners that allow them to live and work in the country – including Zimbabweans.
A similar permit for Angolans expired in 2021 and another for Lesotho nationals 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’s comments but would provide the necessary assistance to the patient.
He defended Zimbabwe’s health care system, saying “we are also pouring a lot of investment into our health facilities in all parts of the country in order to improve the clinical care available to citizens.”
It is not the first time Dr Ramathuba has made headlines for controversial statements – in January she was reprimanded for telling female students to “open your books and close your legs” in a bid to encourage abstinence and reduce teenage pregnancies.
Additional reporting by Tiffany Wertheimer