Thirty years ago I stood on the rooftop of Edendale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg where I had started my orthopedic training.
I looked up the Sweetwater Valley. It reminded me of the opening of Alan Paton’s book, Cry, the Beloved Country:
“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.”
I stood on the roof of the hospital watching a swathe of a Zulu men descend as an impi down the valley, over grass-covered and rolling hills that were lovely. The army of men moved toward a trading store and before they reached it, the occupants fled. It was as if someone had released a man-eating lion in the store. Then the impi engulfed the store and it burst into flames. The war machine continued on its path of destruction and killing. They approached homesteads, schools, clinics and the occupants fled. Then the buildings burst into flames. Later we would receive the casualties at the hospital.
Ten years later I was a qualified orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Durban. It was the 17th of July 2002 when I took transfer of a patient from the local provincial hospital further south from Amanzimtoti where I work.
She was eighteen years old. Her orthopedic injuries included fractures of one arm and leg and traumatic amputations of the other arm and both her legs. She had been attacked, raped and left on railway tracks for the cold steel wheels of a train to slice her up.
Three days ago I received news that my late father’s youngest grandson had died of Covid, leaving behind his partner and two small beautiful little boys. Yesterday I was told that a close friend of my brothers had died. He was my friend as well. The lives of our families had been intertwined from the beginning.
Today my cousin called me from Australia to commiserate.
“Every time we get news from South Africa, it’s bad news. How are you holding up? Are you ok? Look after yourself.” I was touched by his concern. He is compassionate and cares for many people. We joked about Australia being a “nanny state”.
Afterwards I thought about what I am writing today and was thinking of a title.
“Bad News” did not make as much sense as when I wrote “Some Good News” when we started our vaccination program,
I write not only to share what I think are lessons and insights. I write to help me cope. Sharing the narrative in medicine has been shown to reduce burnout.
We were already burnt out like those buildings in that lovely green valley. Facing the third wave of Covid seemed an impossible task.
Now after last weeks event’s we are broken.
Things are broken in South Africa.
People are broken in South Africa.
The corruption that has drained resources from our country continues unabated and the only prison sentence that was upheld was for contempt of court. Not for corruption.
This imprisonment was followed by a systematic attack on the colourful fabric of our society. Joseph’s Technicolor Dream Coat is in shreds.
We all face these events which, like the impis burning in the valley, or the thugs raping and leaving a young girl on a railway line, scar us.
These recent events have brought previous trauma to the surface for me. I had never buried those disturbing events I had witnessed as a young doctor, and then again as a young orthopaedic surgeon. I hoped that theses atrocities could be healed by the miracle of our inspiring path to democracy.
They were obviously not healed.
Now I know our democracy is broken, and it is time to move on to heal.
A priest on Durban beach.