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Learning from our comrades

Health in a new South Africa

Bafana Seripe is a health worker at the Workplace Information Group (WIG) in Johannesburg. WIG run workshops for union shop stewards about health and safety. Bafana was one of the 200 delegates who met in Mozambique last month for a conference on health and welfare in Southern Africa. In this story, Bafana tells Learn and Teach about Maputo and the conference…

“I woke up early in the morning of 8 April 1989, feeling very excited. In no time I had packed my suitcase and was ready to drive out to Jan Smuts airport where I was going to meet about 60 other South African health workers. We were all going to Maputo for the Fourth International Conference on health in Southern Africa.

“The conference was to last a week, from 9 April to 15 April. Delegates were coming from Uganda, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and other African countries. Also attending were anti- apartheid health workers from the United Kingdom and the United States. ANC delegates from Lusaka, members of the UDF and South African trade unions were also coming. All in all we were about 200 people.

“It was decided to have the conference in Mozambique as a way of showing our solidarity with the people of that country. Mozambique has suffered terribly because of the help that the apartheid government has given to the rebel army, RENAMO. At the same time, the FRELIMO government of Mozambique allowed us to have the conference there to show its solidarity with all freedom-loving South Africans.

“The main aim of the conference was to talk about health in a democratic and non-racial South Africa. In the new South Africa, there will be political changes. But there will also have to be other changes as well, for example, in the education system and the health and welfare system.

“We were here to discuss how the health and welfare system should change. We wanted to share our problems with our comrades in the Frontline States and learn from their struggles.”


“As we flew over South Africa and into Mozambique, I tried to imagine what the country would be like. I had read a lot about the terrible things that the RENAMO rebels were doing to the people of Mozambique.

“We landed in Maputo about an hour later and left the airport in a small bus. Driving towards the city, we passed many shacks. It was clear that the people were very poor. But it was just as clear that they had a lot of pride — everything was very clean and tidy.

“In Maputo, we saw big buildings that were only half built. The streets had no lines to show where to drive — but all the drivers were very patient and waited for each other to pass. The people were friendly and smiled at us. I was sorry that I can’t speak Portuguese because I could not speak to them.

“We were taken to our hotel, the Rovuma Hotel — a big place with 12 floors. My room was on the 11th floor. The hotel was nice and clean but every second night the electricity went off. This is because RENAMO has blown up many of the power lines in the country. On those nights, I had to walk up 11 flights of stairs! Luckily, we had candles and torches. That night I went to bed early, thinking about the conference that was going to start the next day.”


“One of the most important discussions at the conference was about the health and welfare system in South Africa. The system has many problems.

“Until recently, hospitals and clinics were ‘white-only’ or ‘black-only’. (The law changed a few weeks ago). More money is spent on white health services than black health services. Black hospitals are overcrowded, they have too few workers and not enough equipment. Not enough money or attention goes to health in the rural areas. More and more people cannot afford to pay for health care. The health system concentrates more on curing sicknesses than on preventing them.

“On the welfare side, black people suffer more when it comes to pensions, caring for the disabled, the homeless and the unemployed.

“Delegates from the Frontline States and other countries told us about their experiences. They have tried to build a health system that reaches all the people. This has not always been possible because they do not have the money and because of the help that the apartheid government has given to rebel armies.

“After discussing these problems, the delegates agreed that we have to build a new health and welfare system. This new system must be non-racial. Everybody must be able to use it and it must not be expensive. Most importantly, communities must have some control over it.”


“Part of the conference was a two-day workshop on AIDS. For me, this workshop was the high-point of the conference. We started off by agreeing that AIDS is a very big problem in South Africa. About 60 000 people already have the AIDS virus and in a few years time they will have AIDS. Doctors think that by January next year, 120 000 people will have the AIDS virus.

“We spoke first about the South African government’s AIDS campaign. Delegates said that the government is not doing enough to teach people about AIDS. Others added that the government is doing it the wrong way. For example, instead of educating people about what they can do to NOT get AIDS, the government is just making people afraid of getting it. The government is also not explaining the causes of AIDS in South Africa, such as the bad living and working conditions that help to spread AIDS, for example, migrant labour, the hostel system, and the shortage of housing.

“Too little money is given to AIDS education by the government — last year they only spent five and a half million rands. Mozambique spent ten million rands and it has a much smaller population. The government also does not consult with progressive organisations or communities.

“Comrades from other countries talked about how they deal with AIDS. One doctor from Uganda told us that over one million people in Uganda were suffering from the AIDS virus. He told how the country was too poor to give proper health care, and how they were trying to get the families and communities of AIDS victims to care for the sick. He also spoke about how they were teaching people about safe sex and condoms.

“Another comrade from the ANC in Lusaka spoke about the need to educate men about condoms. She said that some men refused to use them.

She told us about an AIDS video that they were showing to MK soldiers in the camps. Delegates from other countries agreed that all men have to be educated about using condoms.

“At the end of the workshop, we made an important suggestion — to form a National Task Force which would look at ways of carrying on the fight against AIDS. We said that political organisations like the ANC and progressive organisations should lead the way in a campaign against the disease.

“Comrade Steve Tshwete from the ANC’s National Executive Committee supported the proposal to form the Task Force. He said he was going to discuss the suggestion with the other members of the NEC to see how the ANC could help in the fight against AIDS.”


“On the last few days of the conference, we talked about the need for women to be involved in health, the training of doctors, nurses and other health workers and the health of factory and farm workers.

We also discussed how to get money to fund the health services in a new South Africa.

“The delegates from the ANC talked about the return of comrades from exile. These comrades will need the support of people when they come back — they will need jobs and houses and they will need to find their families again. We talked about what we can do to help them.

“A National Returnees Committee will be formed to work together with the ANC. They will work out ways of welcoming the comrades.”


“When we had some free time, we went to visit a hospital in Maputo. This visit gave us the chance to see, first- hand, what the war by RENAMO and the South African army has done to that country.

“We were told how RENAMO has destroyed the economy of the country, through sabotage, destroying the transport system and health services. We saw children who were suffering from the sicknesses of the poor such as kwashiorkor. Thousands of people have been killed by RENAMO, especially in the rural areas. Many more have gone to Maputo to get away from the war.

“The FRELIMO government of Mozambique has been forced to spend more money on the war than on the needs of the people. Now, FRELIMO is trying to negotiate with RENAMO to stop the war.

“These were touching experiences for us. And the message was clear: the problems of the Mozambican people are our problems. A future democratic South Africa will have to make the bond of solidarity between the people of Mozambique and the rest of Southern Africa even stronger.

“Like all good things, the conference had to end. But not before a big party to end it all off! Delegates jived and clicked their fingers to the sound of Mozambican traditional music and songs. Then we took to the streets and toyi-toyied a big goodbye to this beautiful land of hope and suffering.

“It was sad to part with all the comrades who had made the conference an event to remember. The friendship and comradeship we felt during the conference is hard to measure.

“It was even sadder to leave behind our comrades in exile. We could not help saying to each other that ‘next time we meet will be at home”. We all hope that this dream will come true, very soon.”

NEW WORDS welfare system — the way a government looks after the old, the sick and the unemployed people cure and prevention — cure is when a doctor makes someone well after he or she is sick, prevention is making sure someone doesn’t get sick in the first place


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