South African leader Cyril Ramaphosa condemned anti-immigrant protests in the capital, Pretoria, after demonstrators barred non-nationals from accessing a hospital. The trouble was sparked by a video on social media showing a regional health minister berating a Zimbabwean patient at a South African hospital a week ago.
“Acts of lawlessness, intimidation and humiliation directed at foreign nationals, whether they are documented or undocumented, should not be tolerated,” Ramaphosa told parliament in a televised address on Tuesday.
The president’s statement follows an incident which has sparked a fierce debate in both countries, as some see this as another instance of xenophobia.
On a vivit to a hospital, Limpopo provincial Health Minister Phophi Ramathuba told the Zimbabwean woman who was awaiting medical attention there that she and other immigrants were straining the provincial healthcare system.
The woman had reportedly been in a car accident and was scheduled for surgery.
‘You’re supposed to be with Mnangagwa, he doesn’t give me money to operate you guys. Now I must operate you with my limited budget…’ Moment Limpopo Health MEC and provincial ANC official Dr Phophi Ramathuba confronted Zimbabwean patient admitted at a hospital in Bela-Bela pic.twitter.com/Ddkk3ATRtQ— ZimLive (@zimlive) August 23, 2022
The group touring the hospital with inister Ramathuba was seen laughing in the video as the Zimbabwean patient, who was not seen, said in weak voice, “Thank you very much. I appreciate.”
Minister Ramathuba goes on to lecture the injured woman about the lack of funds to take care of Limpopo residents, claiming that when Zimbabweans are ill they just cross the border.
South Africa’s northern Limpopo province borders Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwean officials in South Africa responded a week after the video was widely circulated on social media, as some agreed with the minister and others condemned the harsh treatment of the patient.
“The embassy of the Republic of Zimbabwe in Pretoria watched with shock and disbelief the video in which the Member of Executive Council (MEC) of Health Limpopo province spoke to a Zimbabwean national who happened to be a patient in a hospital in the province,” according to the statement.
“The embassy has been in contact with the Government of South Africa through the Department of International Relations and Cooperation and has conveyed the concerns of the Government of Zimbabwe on the claims made by the MEC,” it added.
The tension between South Africa and immigrants, some of whom are illegal, has been an ongoing problem.
Although some South Africans see foreigners treated in their health facilities in a negative light – often described as medical xenophobia – healthcare is a right in South Africa.
This also applies to undocumented migrants, writes University of Witswatersrand migration researcher Kudawashe Vanyoro.
Ramathuba, a medical doctor herself, denied that she is xenophobic, saying that the Zimbabwean patient told her she had a car accident in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, and was told to cross the border to South Africa for treatment.
Researcher Vanyoro says that South Africa’s healthcare system is overburdened, but that is not the fault of non-nationals.
“The blame on migrants is therefore misplaced as these are health system management and governance issues,” he says.
The incident has taken on political tones in both South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Ramathuba tells the patient in the video, “You are supposed to be with Mnangagwa, you know he doesn’t give me money to operate on you guys, and I’m operating with my limited budget,” referring to Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, which has worsened under Mnangagwa, has pushed many Zimbabweans to look for jobs elsewhere.
While a number of Zimbabweans work in the medical and educational sectors in South Africa, Pretoria has made it difficult for Zimbabweans to renew their permits to remain.
“Fellow Africans in South Africa, we note your frustrations and economic constraints. I kindly ask for your support to Zimbabweans in these trying times,” Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), said on twitter.
Adding the need for the country to hold free and fair elections to resolve the political and economic crisis, he said: “Many are not in your country out of mischief but on account of poor leadership, bad governance and deadening poverty. Zimbabweans mean no harm to you. After all, we are decent and great neighbours.”
Protesters have blocked people trying to enter the hospital because of skin colour and language, which goes against the tenets of democratic rights in South Africa, the government said in a statement.
President Ramaphosa and the ruling African National Congress have come under fire by South African opposition parties for not taking a stronger stand in this latest flare up of anti-immigrant sentiment.
“We are not a xenophobic nation. And even the leadership of the party that I lead is not xenophobic. Our foreign policy is actually admired around the world, because it has taken decisions of a progressive type,” said Ramaphosa.
This is not the first time anti-foreigner sentiment has sparked protests, sometimes leading to violence. Brutality against non-nationals erupted in 2008, when 62 were killed, and there were incidents in 2015, 2016, and 2019.