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Many unemployed health workers are not convinced that the provincial department of health in the Eastern Cape is serious about creating enough posts to re-employ them. They believe that the government has failed to fulfill its promises of re-employment despite the widespread evidence of a collapsing health service due to staff shortages in the province.  About three weeks ago, over a thousand healthcare workers marched to Bhisho to demand re-employment. This was after the EC department of health, in December and at the end of March this year, terminated about 8,000 contracts of employment, promising to advertise some of the posts when funding is again available.

Thandiwe Dada, a qualified health promoter and a coordinator, is unhappy about the way the department is dealing with the issue of their re-employment. “For an example in relation to health promoters, nurses, community health workers: the department has only created fewer posts than they promised in the agreement, most of us will therefore sit at home,” she said.

“It’s not a secret that the department has been playing hide and seek in terms of making sure that our demands are responded to,” said Yonela Gxothiwe, a nurse and a coordinator. He mentioned that communications with management represented by the director of labour relations, Bongani Lose, remain fruitless. He accused the department of refusing to respond to the workers’ demands as expressed in the memorandum.

Nomvuyo Mkosi from Zwelitsha, who was working for Emergency Metro Services at Grey Hospital in King William’s Town, does not believe that the government has the political will or a genuine commitment to employ them. “We marched during a rainy and cold day in Bhisho hoping that by now we will be at work and we were not aware that they will instead [re-]introduce tenders,” Nomvuyo said. Mkosi revealed that one of her colleagues has been re-employed as a general assistant but now under a tender and is earning R2,500 instead of the R3,500 she earned before.

The Eastern Cape health department has promised to fill critical posts in the Annual Recruitment Plan to ease the shortage of healthcare workers

Speaking to patients at Nontyatyambo Community Health Centre in Mdantsane it was clear that there are serious challenges at the facility. Patients were angry and more than willing to talk about the delays and lack of proper healthcare at the facility. Boniswa Zinto, a 69-year-old pensioner who stays with five grandchildren in Restin, a township just outside Mdantsane, mentioned that nurses laugh at patients and have no care for them irrespective of age. She explained that she and many other elderly people had queued since 07h00 and had not been attended for more than 5 hours.

Nomava Mzayifana, a young mother who was queuing at the maternal and child health unit, felt that the government should provide them with food since they wait with children for many hours at the hospital. She said most of the young mothers in the queue were not working and depend solely on social grants while living in areas far from where food parcels were distributed during the lockdown.

Sitting next to Mzayifana was another young mother of three from NU 1, Portia Manuel. She has been taking her six-year-old to Nontyatyambo for about five weeks and was very angry and frustrated by the poor quality of services at the facility. She revealed that her child who is losing weight for an unknown reason, had yet to see a doctor. The nurses repeatedly tell her to come again.

Overcrowding and a shortage of nurses in the clinics was a common complaint of those who spoke to Elitsha. “With fewer staff members our community will suffer more this winter season; since many clinics do not have waiting rooms, patients are told to wait outside,” said Mountain Mkonqo, a former clinic committee member at Braelyn 10 clinic. At the East London Gateway clinic, 39-year-old Nozuko Somqhulu arrived at the clinic at about 7:30 only to be told to submit her folder and wait outside since there were only two nurses on duty. At about 11:30, the sister in charge called out names from the stack of folders belonging to the dozens of patients waiting outside, asking them to form a queue just outside the clinic’s door.

In a statement dated 29 March, the department of health said that they will be advertising vacancies for some of those who were retrenched but stressed that not all workers could be re-employed due to the discontinuation of the state of national disaster.

“We have two categories of employees which were protesting, which is the CommServes whose one-year contracts are ending at the end of March, and also the Covid-19 contract workers whose contracts also end at the end of March. We reached a compromise that says the CommServes who are community service workers must apply because we have some money,” said MEC for health in the Eastern Cape, Nomakhosazana Meth. She could not say how many of the posts will be re-opened but that they will be ‘looking at the budget’ before advertising them.

Meth said the contracts of the Covid-19 contract workers are not going to be renewed because of a lack of funds. “We explained to their leadership that we don’t have money any longer but we have permanent jobs that we will be advertising so we encourage them to also apply because the reality is that the department needs these employees; it’s just unfortunate that we don’t have the money,” she said.