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A vindictive, protracted and costly campaign against three young doctors for “unlawfully removing two blue chairs with the intent to permanently deprive Tygerberg Hospital of its possessions” is finally over. And it ends in a deservedly humiliating defeat for the over-zealous bureaucrats of Western Cape Health (WCH). After an appeal to the sectoral bargaining council, the department’s heavy-handed disciplinary sanctions were ruled “substantively unfair”. The council also ordered the expungement of the theft finding from the records. The storm in a teacup, which nevertheless spotlights failings in WCH’s attitude to its professional staff, as well as a cavalier approach to...
A vindictive, protracted and costly campaign against three young doctors for “unlawfully removing two blue chairs with the intent to permanently deprive Tygerberg Hospital of its possessions” is finally over.

And it ends in a deservedly humiliating defeat for the over-zealous bureaucrats of Western Cape Health (WCH).

After an appeal to the sectoral bargaining council, the department’s heavy-handed disciplinary sanctions were ruled “substantively unfair”. The council also ordered the expungement of the theft finding from the records.

The storm in a teacup, which nevertheless spotlights failings in WCH’s attitude to its professional staff, as well as a cavalier approach to administrative transparency, has continued for over a year.

The department had fired Dr Mathew de Swardt and suspended Dr Kim Morgan and Dr Abdurragmaan Domingo in the final year of specialisation, after they “stole” two broken chairs. The chairs had been dumped on an outdoor heap of furnishings and rubble.

The doctors wanted to fix the chairs for the staff tea room they were renovating. As De Swardt explained it with plaintive naïveté: “I thought I was doing something nice.”

When it was made clear that they had not followed hospital protocols, the trio immediately returned the chairs, but, to their consternation, months later the hospital bosses laid charges of theft.

Morgan was hauled out of surgery when cops arrived to arrest them. But the police left when it was pointed out that the chairs had never been stolen and were, in any case, back on the rain-soaked rubbish pile.

Thwarted at jailing the desperado decorators, the bureaucrats upped their pettiness and poison. A full eight months after the heist that-never-was, a disciplinary inquiry headed by a transparently pliant outside consultant, Shameem Modack-Robertson, found the three guilty of theft, with the sentence being the firing of the criminal mastermind, De Swardt, and suspensions without pay for his sidekicks.

At a stroke, De Swardt was out of work. The trio also faced the prospect of disciplining by the Health Professions Council.

Fortunately, public reaction was immediate. WCH was within hours cowering under a wave of criticism and disbelief.

Within 48 hours, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) provincial health minister, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, had reversed the firing/suspensions. Instead, the trio would get final written warnings.

De Swardt and Morgan, represented pro bono by Michael Bagraim, who is also the DA’s shadow national labour minister, now approached the council to remove the theft slur.

“Morgan felt she was unfairly treated. The findings were grossly biased and the sanction appears to have been premeditated before the disciplinary process took place,” the record reads.

But this was only a single incident. So I was interested to look for a pattern in other disciplinary actions, citing the Public Access of Information Act (PAIA).

Months have come and gone. I write regularly to the media relations person, Nomawethu Sbukwana, copying her bosses, Marika Champion, head of communications and Douglas Newman-Valentine, the head of ministry. I write also to Eugene Reynolds, the information officer tasked with PAIAs. Nothing has happened and nothing is going to happen.

A week ago, Mbombo announced that she opposed NHI because it would make WCH “useless and dysfunctional” by taking away the role of the department’s senior managers.

Nope, Dr M. Not possible. They’re already useless and dysfunctional.

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