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Racism and Christian healthcare

29 December 2015

Last night we were returning home in the car after seeing friends and there was an interview on the radio with a bloke who ran an emergency paramedic outfit. He said he encountered a lot of racism in his work. When the paramedics were called out to the scene of an accident or something similar, some people were unhappy that the paramedics were black. They often assumed that they were not as qualified as white ones to do their job. He said this was a common response among white people, but sometimes they had the same response from black people that the paramedics had gone to help.

After we had been listening to this for while, my wife Val remarked that she could not have wanted better care than she had had from the black nurses at St Mary’s Hospital at KwaMagwaza in Zululand.

She had gone there for regular ante- and post-natal checkups when our two younger children were born, and that was over 30 years ago, during the apartheid period, when there was presumably more racial prejudice than there is now; in those days racial prejudice was not merely accepted, but expected. Government hospitals were segregated into black and white sections, “white” ambulances were not allowed to carry black patients and vice-versa.

My beautiful picture

St Mary’s Hospital, KwaMagwaza, 1980

On one occasion, in 1965, we had come across a scene of an accident — a bus had stopped outside a country store, and a child had run out from behind the bus to go to the shop, and a car coming the other way knocked him down. We phoned from the store to Dundee, the nearest town, and asked for an ambulance. When the ambulance arrived, the driver did not want to take the child — the ambulance was for whites and the child was black. So we asked, did he plan to leave the child lying in the dusty road while he went back to town and sent a “black” ambulance? Did he think it was a good use of the taxpayers’ money to make a double trip? Eventually, with much grumbling, he agreed to take the child. Back in those days, race mattered.

But to find such attitudes 20 years after the end of apartheid is an anachronism, to say the least.

St Mary’s Hospital was an Anglican church hospital, and that made it a bit different from government hospitals. It was built on land given to the church by King Mpande, in the days when Zululand was still independent, but after Zululand had been annexed to Natal following the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 much of the surrounding land was given to white farmers, and so most of the patients are the hospital were black farm labourers who worked on the white-owned farms.

There was another Anglican Church hospital about 120 km to the north, the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital at Nqutu. Nqutu was in a “Bantu Homeland”. I visited it a couple of times in 1965. It was run by a husband and wife medical team, Anthony and Maggie Barker, and they had developed it into a real Christian healing community. It was the sort of place one would like to be sick in.

Maggie and Anthony Barker, Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital, Nquthu, 1972

Maggie and Anthony Barker, Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital, Nquthu, 1972

In those days there were many church hospitals, especially in rural black areas, run by a number of different denominations. I didn’t visit all of them, obviously, but those I did visit, though they certainly had their problems, had a similar spirit of Christian community, where white and black staff shared meals together, worked together and prayed together. Perhaps for this reason the National Party government nationalised all the church hospitals in the “Bantu homelands” in 1973. They did not want values alien to the apartheid ideology, like the notion of a Christian healing community, diluting their control.

Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital, Nquthu, 1965

Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital, Nquthu, 1965

One result of this was that the nationalised church hospitals were faced with a critical staff shortage, and the quality of medical services in the rural areas plummeted. Many members of staff, especially the doctors and senior teaching nursing staff, were recruited by Christian agencies, and the people who applied to work in them saw it as part of their Christian ministry. They were prepared to work long hours at lower pay because they saw it as part of their Christian service, perhaps like the Anargyri of old. When the church hospitals were nationalised, the government could not recruit such people (and anyway one of the objects of nationalising the hospitals had been to get rid of them), so they had to resort to staffing the hospitals with half-trained medical students who had been conscripted into the army.

St Mary’s Hospital, KwaMagwaza, escaped this nationalisation for a while, because it was in a “white” area and not in a “Bantu homeland”. So it continued as a church hospital when we lived in the nearby village of Melmoth. And as Val said, she could not have wanted better care than she got from the black nurses at the hospital. We were planning for our children to be born there too, but one of them was somewhat overdue, and the medical superintendent said that they did not have the facilities to perform an induction of labour in case something went wrong, so he referred us to the government hospital in Eshowe, 60 km away. But that too was not lacking in Christian healthcare, even though the nurses were white; one was the wife of the Anglican dean, and the other was a Roman Catholic nun.

The Chapel at Charles Johnson Mem,orial Hospital, Nqutho, Zululand, in 1965, when it was still a church hospital

The Chapel at Charles Johnson Mem,orial Hospital, Nquthu, Zululand, in 1965, when it was still a church hospital

In saying this I’m not saying that Christian nurses are more competent than non-Christian ones, or that non-Christian nurses are incompetent. The point is that in the church hospitals that I knew the Christian community transcended apartheid, and that was why the government didn’t like them and tried to destroy them.

One of the white farmers of the Melmoth district was appointed to the board of St Mary’s Hospital, since many of the patients were farm workers, or members of their families, so the farmers had an interest in the hospital and its running. He was atheist/agnostic, but began to take an interest in the Christian faith and began asking for books to read on it, and started asking me questions about it. I was also a member of the hospital board, and I warned him that he must not expect Christians to be perfect — we had had a series of very difficult meetings of the hospital board, at some of which we had had to discuss sacking a senior member of the staff. But he said no, it was those very meetings of the hospital board that had convinced him that there must be something in the Christian faith, because they were so entirely unlike the secular business meetings he was used to attending. Yes, the issues were difficult, and the decisions hard, but the way that the board had gone around taking the decisions had greatly impressed him, and he was confirmed by the Anglican bishop of Zululand a few months later.

So if we could manage to look at black members of healing professions without racial prejudice in the 1970s and 1980s, when racism was politically correct, why can’t we do so today, when the apartheid ideology has been discredited and rejected?

Back then race mattered, because the government and its supporters thought it mattered, and they did their best to make sure that everyone else thought it mattered too. Surely people should have been disabused of that idea by now? Yes, there will always be a few hard-core racists who think that race matters, and will be like the ambulance driver who refused to take the black child in a “white” ambulance. But if an ambulance for anyone comes along, why get uptight about the race of the paramedics who have come to help? Just be thankful that somebody has come.






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