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African Journal - Report 2

Dear Friends,

It is the end of October 1998 now, and some time has passed since I last wrote a report. Much has happened, and I will try to capture as much of it here as I can. There will be no pictures for a while yet, since it has proven difficult to get access to a scanner; sorry about that.

So, what's the news?

Let me tell you about my work, first. For three weeks after the departure of my boss, I worked fairly independently here at Johannes House Hospice. Much of the administration of the place was my responsibility. Now that she's back, I still have a good deal of responsibility. One could say that I am co-running the place together with our matron. She's primarily taking care of the medical+care side of the work, me and my boss are doing the administrative side.

Besides trouble-shooting the occasional problem, there are some things that I do regularly. Every morning, I'm running a little shop at the highschool here at the center. I sell freshly baked stuff from our own bakery to our students to help finance the hospice. It's fun to do, you know that everybody is waiting for you when you come into the school, and there's always a battle for the goodies. I also get in touch with the pupils that way, getting to know their faces and names.

I also take care of our regular shopping in Pretoria, "medicine runs" (see below) and the odd errand like picking up mail from our P.O. Box in town. Sometimes it takes half a day or more until I have all that I need and got everything done, but the driving is definately the best part of the job so far. After all, the Center is way out of town, and there is NO public transport whatsoever. If you don't have a car, you basically can't get away, unless you get a ride from somebody. Hitchhiking is pretty much out of the question, since the crime is appalling and everybody has a story or two how people got assaulted and even killed for their kindness when they picked up someone (one of our teachers helped two stranded teens with giving them a lift to a gas station and back because they had run out of fuel. In return, they shot her through the chin and robbed her when she had dropped them back at their car. She just about made it to the hospital and survived, but had to have her face reconstructed with plastic surgery).

So I am in the fortunate position to be mobile and to get into town at least twice a week, where there is always time between errands to squeeze in a little coffee break. Not all the volunteers here do enjoy that priviledge; most get to experience the coutry life faily thoroughly. :)

Besides all the driving, I am sort of a receptionist here also, talking to people who want to bring in patients, and doing some finance work.

A big part of the job is organising medicines - a "medicine run". Most of our terminal patients come from the black township Mamelodi closeby. They don't have the means to pay for their medication and care themselves, and the only place where they can get it for free is a state hospital in town, Pretoria Academic Hospital. (the place used to be called H.F. Vervoerd Hospital, after the first prime minister of SA that introduced Apartheid and designed the homelands. He's understandably unpopular and out of fashion with the majority of both blacks and whites today, which is why the hospital has been renamed. Still, everyone still calles it short "HF").

I am at HF regularly to pick up medicines for our patients. Often, the family (who would be asked to do that) doesn't even have the money for transport to the hospital, which is why we do that for them. I have to collect meds from every individual doctor who referred a patient to us, and then pick up different meds and aids like colostomy bags and diapers from different pharmacies in the complex. Since the whole place essentially is an unorganized, chaotic zoo, it usually takes me a day to to a "run".

In fact, the HF is a prime example of what's been going wrong in SA since the "transition" (as the end of Apartheid is called here) in 1989.

HF used to be an elite state hospital, for whites only (the blacks had another one, Kalafong Hospital, at the other side of town). In the "old days", it was renowned as one of the best in Southern Africa. Today, it has declined in quality so much that even whites who have to use the public hospitals (because they can't afford one of the many private ones) often would rather be treated in the "black" Kalafong.

The HF facade is nice, kolonial style recently renovated. If you step in, you're in a different world. The place is packed with hoards of people, and maintenance everywhere has been neglected. Everything is falling apart, and dirt is everywhere. It's basically impossible to find a useable toilet (in a hospital!). Organizasionally, chaos reigns. The right hand of the administration doesn't know what the left hand does, and the rules change every other month. While some wards, and their staff, work incredible overhours and are amazingly committed to keep their level of services high, many wards are in a desparate condition, patients lying neglected about etc.

How did such an elite hospital end up so far down? As everywhere in SAs public life, when the ANC won elections and and took over the levers of power, many of HF's white administrators were removed. Understandably so, since many had been supporting the Apartheid system and were tainted (very similarly to communist administrators who were removed after the downfall of the Wall in Eastern Germany). But they were qualified, and they had experience in running a hospital. Since, under Apartheid, education options for blacks were very restricted, there was hardly anyone in the black population who was sufficiently qualified to replace them. Consequently, people without experience found themselves promoted, over night, to posts that they couldn't fully handle. Not surprisingly, the white administrative staff that remained was not overly exited and supportive of the newly imposed, underqualified leaders. Therefore a mixture of incompetence and passive resistance and resignation have reduced the former elite hospital to what it is today.

This example can stand for a largest part of the South African public service. Sure, many of the new leaders try to learn on the job, and eventually things may improve. But another problem is slowing that process considerably: An entitlement culture amongst the blacks that is the product of Apartheid and hampers progress.

As I have mentioned in the first report, Apartheid created dependency on the side of the blacks. You do what the boss says, and only that. Self-initiative wasn't required or encouraged, accountibility and responsibility not developed because blacks never were given a chance to hold positions requiring such attributes in the first place. After all, they were those "unreliable and lazy" creatures, so one had to have "an eagle eye" on them and supervise everything they do. If you're treated like a child, you adopt attitudes of a child.

So many of the "new black elites" who got catapulted into power thoroughly enjoyed, and are enjoying, the benefits of running things. The BMWs and Mercedes of new government executives are legendary, and corruption (admittedly already rife in the "old days") remains a major problem.

But a strong sense of stakeholdership ("this is my ministry and I want it to run well") is rarely found. It's still percieved by many as "the white's system", but now "the oppressed brothers get what they've been denied all these years". Duties are neglected while priviledges are enjoyed, and the obvious result is collapse of the public service.

Unfortunately, the fact that the situation doesn't stem from an "inherent inability of blacks to run things properly", but from the mistakes made during Apartheid, has not been recognized by many whites. They see the deterioration of service as a confirmation of their prejudices. So the trenches between blacks and whites remain manned, and the country divided.

In a generation or two, all that might be very different. When I see the kids at our school play, blacks, whites, Chinese, Indians, all together and really colorblind, that makes me feel really good. This is really "Rainbow Nation"! This new way of thinking will overcome the old, I'm really sure of that. One just hopes that the country survives that long in between the crime. But there is also a new black middleclass forming in the townships. I visited some of these people (teachers, small shop owners, ...), and I found their energy and no-nonsense attitude amazing. It is these people building the future of this country in between the gangsters and many corrupt officials, and I really do admire them. Still, there is loads of "old thinking" to overcome, and much of that will only die once the people who propagate it have died, too.

Some of that "old thinking" is present here in Ubuntu also, although I'm certain that everybody here would be deeply insulted if I suggested that openly. I've just been through a pretty big crisis because of that. In fact, I was even thinking of leaving and putting everything down.

What happened was that a good friend of mine, whom I had gotten to know while he was working at Ubuntu, was forced out and had to leave because of a total communication breakdown and an immense culture clash with the leaders here. Considering that he had given up a well paying job and the company of his friends in England to come here, this was a catastrophy for him.

He was a shy and sensitive guy, his attitude was dominated by consensus-seeking and negotiation. But among many of the whites here (and I have the impression especially farmers), negotiation is considered a sign of weakness. They'll push their opinion up your nose, and then you can take it or leave it. That's their idea of strenght. Also trust in workers is not really there, probably a legacy of apartheid. There is always a bit of suspicion and fear that they might steal or sabotage or do harm in other ways. Control of workers is therefore considered a more suitable tool to achieve performance than trusting and tolerating the occasional mistake, and any sort of "resistance" is put down swiftly because "it might spread".

When my friend questioned working hours and paternal treatment of black workers, he became a "danger" to the "harmony" of the center and a target for minute supervision. Any trust was destroyed, and the climate permanently poisoned. He could not live with the command & control method and gave up his dream of "making a difference" here.

I was really angry and sad about the way this affair had taken it's course. I "took sides" and started to ask questions on the same topics myself. That was a rather bad idea. Sure, I've made the experience before (in the US), that it is never really appreciated if "outsiders" criticise or question the way "insiders" have been handling things for years. But the response I got here was severe. It came down to a warning that I would be fired if I didn't shut up.

Since then I've taken two steps back and have started to look at the good sides of the place (good school, employment provider, my work at the hospice where the climate is good). I've also gotten to know that, on the farms surrounding the center, workers are treated, comparatively, much harsher then here (minimum wages, or even just food and lodging as payment). So I had to recognize that I had leaned a bit too far out of the window too early. Nevertheless, the way conflict or criticism has been suppressed has destroyed some of the "merry feelings" I had just after I had come. This is not a "paradise of harmony and tolerance", it is a place like many others, with big egos matching big achievements, just like elsewhere. Just another lesson, and maybe worth it just because of that.

Despire the upheavel, I would not like to be anywhere else at the moment. I haven't been bored for a minute since I've been here, and I feel that there is a good chance of bigger challenges ahead.

One thing that I am working on is to actually open up to the patients here. I was hoping to work with trauma-damaged children not least in order to improve my ability to empathize with others, my sensitivity and just to get a "bigger heart". So far, that has been difficult to do with the dying. Most of the patients are either in no real condition to get in touch with them, or we can't communicate in English. I hope to take a counselling course soon, in order to get some tools with which I can both help the patients and open up myself to their pain. If I can pull that off, it would be wonderful.

Besides all the deep stuff, I also had the chance to do some touristic things. I visited a reserve, saw a rhino-mom with two kids at 15 metres distance, many other animals and some cool leguans. If you wanna know more on the touristic side, let me know. I'd generally love feedback on my perceptions here, as you alredy know.

So much for now, please keep in touch, and all the best wishes for you all!

Ingo Boltz