Zimbabwe’s babies are warning us about state capture

Last week the Mugabes made headlines again. It was reported that President Robert Mugabe took 72 people with him to New York and while he was falling asleep at the UN, they spent a staggering $1500 per person per day for the 10 days that they were there.

In case you were wondering, that adds up to over a million dollars, or more than R14m for the trip.

Of course the Mugabes’ lavish lifestyle is fairly old news by now. Last year first lady Grace Mugabe was reported to have bought a R58m house in Harare. Then we found out that she also acquired a R500 000 per month abode in Dubai not far from the Gupta-paid-for palace of the Zumas.

Recently, after the Mugabe boys were evicted from their luxurious Sandton apartment for “inappropriate behaviour”, it was reported that she bought them a R45m house in Sandhurst, complete with a summer house, koi pond, six reception rooms, four bedrooms,  four bathrooms, a two-bedroom cottage and a pool. Not bad for student accommodation.

Every time I read these stories, I can’t help thinking back to a trip to Zimbabwe that I was part of a few years ago on behalf of UNICEF. One of the places we went to visit was Harare Central Hospital.

Opened in 1958, this was once the pride of Zimbabwe’s health care system and treated on average 1200 in-patients and 900 out-patients on a daily basis. It also served as a teaching hospital.

During our visits to the wards it was clear that the staff were demoralised and under enormous pressure. They complained of a lack of running water and electricity, and patients said that they had to bring their own linen and food.

But it was the paediatric unit that broke my heart. The two totally exhausted gynaecologists and paediatrician were almost in tears as they related the difficulties they faced on a daily basis.

For example, they had to remove the doors of the theatre where Caesareans were performed since there was no air conditioning and the doctors and theatre staff frequently fainted during operations through a combination of heat and exhaustion.

The women who did not need surgical intervention were giving birth in a long row of beds, with curtains between them. Since this was the hospital where all the difficult cases from around Zimbabwe were referred to, a very high number of babies were premature and needed medical intervention.

But there were not enough doctors and not even the most basic facilities.

I watched helplessly as they tried to revive a tiny little girl, without any equipment. Unable to watch the clearly futile attempt, I turned around. Behind me a pile of dirty linen suddenly moved. To my shock I realised that there were two new-born babies lying amongst it. It was the only way they could keep them warm, the paediatrician explained.

Very few of the incubators worked anymore and those that were still functioning often shut down when there were electricity blackouts and no diesel for the generators, leaving the babies deprived of oxygen.

In the ward for the premature babies, desperate mothers pleaded for our help. There were not enough bassinets and two to three babies shared a tiny little cot – a very dangerous situation with infections.

None of the babies had nappies on and only a lucky few were wrapped in coarse blankets.

The biggest shock came with the seriously premature babies. In the corner of the ward stood a simple pine table covered with a thin blanket. On the table were 15 babies. They were totally naked lying in their own excrement.

A nurse stood next to the table and moved a tube of oxygen between them. On the corner of the table stood a bar heater – a desperate and futile attempt to warm these underweight babies whose bodies could not generate any heat.

I don’t know if things have improved in the three years since I visited that hospital. I really hope so, but somehow doubt it. And so when I read about the excesses of the Mugabes I am furious. Furious because of those little babies who were made to lie naked on a wooden table, shivering with cold and gasping for air.

I fail to understand how a mother can be so removed from reality that she can buy a R45m home for her two sons, who almost daily share their champagne and fast car-lifestyle on social media, while the mothers of her country have to watch their new-born children die.

Of course as we learn more and more of state capture and the obscene amounts of money that have been pilfered from the state by our own politicians and the Guptas, it is clear that the Mugabes are not unique.

And increasingly mothers in our country who can’t afford private medical care are also faced with less than basic services for their babies.

So may the Mugabes be a warning to each one of us of how easily a few people in leadership can cause the destruction of a country. May we remove those who are part of bleeding our state coffers dry, before we also have to watch our little babies lie naked on wooden tables.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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  1. Psyman

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