South Africa: New Free State Health MEC Wants to Restore Hope in the Province’s Healthcare Services

Her aim is to restore hope in healthcare services for the people of Free State, the province’s new Health MEC Mathabo Leeto said shortly after being sworn in as MEC on 14 March.

Leeto’s appointment was part of a reshuffle of the provincial executive council after Mxolisi Dukwana was sworn in as the Free State’s new Premier.

Leeto is no stranger to provincial governance. She was MEC for Sports, Arts, and Culture from 2014 to 2019 and is also a former mayor of Matjhabeng local municipality in Welkom, where she served from 2007 to 2009. She is also currently the provincial treasurer of the ANC.

Don’t expect miracles

Leeto says her main focus will be to strengthen relations with all stakeholders involved in the health sector to ensure that health services are improved in the province.

“I believe that I will be given a handover report and on the basis of the report, we will be able to take decisions. I am going to try and engage everyone so that we can work as a collective,” she says. “I will engage all stakeholders, including the labour movements. I cannot say as an individual that I will bring miracles, but those miracles will happen if we work as a collective.”

The Health MEC also says she wants communities involved in ensuring that facilities and all programmes that are meant to give people a healthy life are implemented. “We want to ensure that our clinics and hospitals are user-friendly. We want to ensure that our people receive their medication timeously,” she says.

When asked about infrastructure projects that are incomplete at several health facilities across the province, she said people will need to account. “We cannot have projects that are incomplete as public funds were spent. We will have to look at this and those that are accountable will have to account,” she says.

I cannot say as an individual that I will bring miracles, but those miracles will happen if we work as a collective. – Mathabo Leeto, Free State Health MEC

The day after she was sworn in, Leeto convened a meeting with the head of the health department, Godfrey Mahlatsi, together with all senior managers to “set the tone of her intentions for the department”, says Mondli Mvambi, spokesperson of the Free State Department of Health.

“The new MEC has made her intentions known that she wants to strengthen the capacity of team health and must improve health outcomes for the betterment of the community,” says Mvambi.

“In her meeting with Mahlatsi and management, she highlighted the need for up-scaling of public information about the referral system, which must lead to the right patient being at the right facility or level of care at the right time, and receiving appropriate quality of care and attention,” he says.

Mvambi says the MEC, in her preliminary observations, highlighted the need to improve public education and awareness about the burden of diseases in the community. “Furthermore, she pointed to the need for improvements in the complaints and compliments management system, which must give confidence to those that are complaining that their views are not being squashed or ignored but handled in a professional manner.” Among the other priorities on her list is to improve the response time of ambulances, which she says must be nearer to the communities with one ambulance per town,” he says.

According to Mvambi, the cleanliness of health facilities, quality food for patients, and improved security for patients, personnel, and members of the public who visit healthcare facilities are all on Leeto’s list of priorities.

When probed on her views on corruption in an interview with Spotlight, Leeto vowed that people will be held accountable.

“It cannot be business as usual in the department when it comes to officials who are still attending court cases. But we will have to look into the legislation first and that is what will be guiding us on decisions that will need to be taken,” she says.

Benefit of the doubt

According to the Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Free State, Professor Sethulego Matebesi, the Dukwana administration will be tested and Leeto will be under extreme pressure.

The new health MEC in earlier media reports was fingered in alleged tender fraud related to her time as mayor of Matjhabeng. But according to the National Prosecuting Authority’s spokesperson in the Free State, Phaladi Shuping, all of those charges have been dropped. Mvambi stressed that this means she has no criminal record and is eligible to occupy high office.

“We all know her tainted history in politics but remember that the environment has changed and there is a new administration that aims to fight corruption,” says Matebesi. “I expect to see some improvement in the health department. She has been clear that she will be focusing on ambulance issues and primary healthcare services and also to push the morale of workers, especially nurses within the department.

Meanwhile, opposition parties say regardless of Leeto’s history, they will give the new MEC the benefit of the doubt.

The chairperson of the Economic Freedom Fighters in the Free State, Mapheule (Coach) Liphoko, says he hopes that the premier knows what he is doing by appointing Leeto in the health department. “Her appointment is problematic. She has been part of a corrupt administration. We have raised on many occasions that the premier must not shy away from appointing characters who are problematic. We don’t want to sound negative, but we will just have to see what she is going to do. We want to see her work and deliver so that our people will receive quality healthcare services,” says Liphoko.

Meanwhile, Democratic Alliance health spokesperson in the province, Mariette Pittaway says her party will give Leeto a chance to do her work. “We will monitor her work and we will continue to fight for the rights of the healthcare recipients,” she says.

However, the party’s provincial chair, Roy Jankielsohn, is less optimistic, especially given the political undercurrents. He says generally the province has a lot of issues. “A collapsing health system, collapsing infrastructure, and collapsing municipalities. Many of the MECs in the Dukwana cabinet are inexperienced and many of them have never led a department. There are already factions in his executive. He only has the support of half of his own cabinet, so he has also run out of human capital. This means that the people of the Free State are still going to suffer,” he says.

Jankielsohn says that Dukwana himself has a poor record. “He was the MEC for Cooperative Governance and municipalities under his leadership as MEC continued to deteriorate,” he says.

However, COSATU provincial secretary Monyatso oa Mahlatsi says they welcome Leeto’s appointment. “We are confident that she will be able to assist us in turning around the situation in the department. We support her appointment and we believe that our members will be served,” he says.

No fond farewell

Meanwhile, in the weeks leading up to the announcement that Leeto will be the new health MEC, some in the health sector had called for the removal of the then Health MEC, Montseng Tsiu. Spokesperson for the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) in the province, Tshepo Davids at the time said the only way that there will be progress in the Free State Department of Health is if the MEC was removed as soon as possible.

This week when Spotlight asked the EFF’s Liphoko about the performance of Tsiu as Health MEC, he said her removal as MEC “is nothing to cry over”.

“Honestly, Tsiu was just there and did not bring change or do anything to improve the department. We have lost nothing in Tsiu, even though they replaced her with someone that we don’t have so much hope in as the EFF. For someone who is a nurse herself, she (Tsiu) did nothing for that department,” he says.

But according to Denosa’s provincial secretary, Brian Motshabi, the union often “worked well with the former MEC and appreciated the enthusiasm she showed when COVID-19 broke out”.

“But,” says Motshabi, “the department still had a lot of challenges and we were not satisfied with the performance of the department. As an affiliate, we were part of consultations during the ANC Lekgotla, so we expressed that we need a change of MEC in the health department. We needed new energy and we were very happy with the recommended name,” he says. “But it is a loss that we have lost someone with a clinical background as we always want to have a leader who has that background.”

Tsiu has not responded to requests for comment from Spotlight. She remains a member of the provincial legislature.