Greyton is a tourist village, nestled against the Sonderend Mountains, an hour and a half from Cape Town, green and lush from mountain streams and shaded by English oaks. But just yards away is the village of Heuwelkroon where so-called ‘Coloured’ residents live. Many of them were re-housed during the 1970s after the Group Areas Act came into force, removing people from their historic homes in Greyton itself to small, government-built houses at a distance from the main part of the village.
Millions of South Africans suffer widespread social and economic hardship. Healthcare is a concern for the South African government. It has only limited funds to spend and as a result, large numbers of people are left to suffer with untreated illness and disease. There are many really ill people in Heuwelkroon, with little or no form of medication to lessen their suffering towards the end of their lives, many whose condition could improve with proper care and the right medication.
A representative from Social Services comes to the village once a month to assess those in need of a disability grant, but without a doctor attending over the past four months, no assessments have been made, which has resulted in many who should be receiving grants having nothing on which to survive. This has left many relying on family and neighbours for help, or on food parcels from the Greyton Red Cross (GRC).
Alcohol is the number one problem in the area. With cheap wine sold for as little as R12.00 a litre (£1), problems relating to over-indulgence are rife.
Tuberculosis is the second most serious problem with many patients passing on the infection or not taking their medication on a regular basis, often becoming re-infected or acquiring the multi-drug resistant form of the disease.
HIV/Aids too has reached Greyton and in the past twelve months has been on the increase, frequently accompanied by TB.
Other problems include cheap drugs and teenage pregnancies, both of which are heavy burdens within the community.
One afternoon I meet Fred. He suffers from a combination of terrible asthma and recurrent TB, made worse by his consumption of cheap alcohol. No matter how often the Red Cross intervened to help with food parcels, he never had enough. He has since passed away. Fred is the embodiment of everything that is wrong within South Africa’s health care system – lack of staff and medicines exacerbated by the fact that there are few jobs, a poor education system and, of course, alcohol.
Kelvin Zietsman is six years old. His father has been disabled for most of his adult life and plays a very minor role in his children’s lives. His mother suffers from severe mental health issues. He has a younger sister and two older brothers.
One afternoon, Kelvin was hit by a car and suffered a broken pelvis, hip and leg as well as sustaining internal injuries. He was placed in a body cast with his legs splayed wide and sent back to Heuwelkroon. When the GRC turned up at his shack to see how the family were coping they found him in the care of an old man who was unable to lift him. Both Kelvin and the bed were soaked with urine and there was nothing to eat in the house.
When GRC made suggestions to the father about Kelvin’s care, he decided to move them from Heuwelkroon, where his extended family live, to a remote part of a town nearby so he could avoid his care of Kelvin being checked on. This left the mother and four children isolated. He has since moved away from the area, taking one son with him. The mother has also abandoned the family and the three remaining children are farmed out to family and neighbours. Kelvin will need physiotherapy for some time to come, but it isn’t availably locally.
After being let down several times by the ambulance system, Kelvin ended up in his cast three weeks longer than he should have, exposing him to serious risks of septicaemia - something particularly dangerous in remote rural areas. The absence of follow-up appointments and physiotherapy will leave him with a permanent physical disadvantage.
Elsa is a struggling single mother and cancer patient, who has been left with huge liver problems. Elsa, like Kelvin, was let down by the ambulance system. The Red Cross found her one afternoon at the bus stop where she had been waiting for over six hours for an ambulance that didn’t come. Elsa is still waiting to hear about her next appointment.
It is difficult for people from the developed world to grasp the extent of the poverty one is faced with in this community. If they are lucky, a person will be provided with a small house by the government. These very basic dwellings often house extended families living not only in the house, but also in poorly constructed shacks in the backyard. There is little employment in the area other than farm work, gardening, working in people’s homes or local hotels and restaurants. Economic development hasn’t reached Greyton. It is basically a rural economy boosted by tourism. Even for those who manage to finish high school there are few opportunities.
When it comes to the Health Care Workers (HCW) of the Red Cross there is a positive story to tell. Greyton Red Cross is a self-funding unit with no financial assistance from either the Regional or National Red Cross. From donations and one grant, the GRC provides home-based care to the Greyton community, and the communities in the surrounding towns. Training has been provided by retired nursing sisters in both home-based care and first aid. These carers, all of whom were previously unemployed, untrained and often with problems in their own families, have gained not only a range of skills but self-respect and the respect of their community.
In the neighbourhood are retired Red Cross workers who are still taking a very active role in the community. One such is Aunty Caroline, who has endured many hardships over the years, but who believes those who give will receive.
There is a vast amount of appreciation from the community for the help that is being given, and for the knowledge that is being passed on by the health care workers. Caroline gives great praise to Jennie Martin for being such a strong front person for the Red Cross and for the HCWs – “someone who will fight for us”.
Jennie is the chairperson for the GRC and is on call 24/7. “There must be someone who stands firm”, Caroline says, and Jennie does so on a regular basis. The need for aid and knowledge in these rural communities is on the increase as the tide of HIV/AIDS is just starting to rise, and the need for educational support is growing rapidly, but in these African countries the problem often gets left until it is too late and the situations spiral out of control.
Asked how she keeps motivated, Jennie Martin says she is not comfortable with the gap between her life and those in the poorer parts of the community. Sometimes, she says, the work is ‘grubby and depressing’, but ‘I continue to learn from this community, often more than I have taught. I wake up every day and think this is the most wonderful place to live and I have to work really hard to justify that’.
There are many such stories to tell, of how the GRC has come to people’s assistance with social support, food, medical help, and transport. They would like to build a small hospice in Greyton, just two or three rooms, where people who are dying can be properly cared for. The land is available. The home-based care workers of the Red Cross work hard, some times seven days a week and all for a basic salary of £50 a month. This has been made possible by a grant from the Belgian Government. Two years of funding from the Belgian Government was gratefully received, but will come to an end in April 2011. It won’t be renewed.
If you would like to view the work of the Greyton Red Cross, you can visit their website at www.overbergredcross.co.za where you can also make a donation, should you so wish.