Maverick Citizen: Eastern Cape
‘I am here to serve my community,’ says legendary social worker Pamela Rubushe
Feisty, diminutive, with a flair for the dramatic and an inability to take no for an answer, Pamela Rubushe, the first social worker to be appointed at Dora Nginza Hospital in Port Elizabeth, retired from the facility in January after 38 years of service.
When people complained that public service in Port Elizabeth was dead, many were quick to point out that Pamela Rubushe was perhaps the most noticeable exception to this rule. When she left her office for the last time after 38 years of service, boxes of newspaper clippings, pictures, thank you letters and small gifts paid testimony to an extraordinary life as a public hospital social worker.
Born in East London in 1955, Rubushe studied social work at Fort Hare University and came to Port Elizabeth for her first job, working for the government in 1981.
“I didn’t know anything about being a working person. I received R200 after the first month of work. I was shocked. I didn’t know how to tell my mother that I only got R200. I just didn’t go back.”
She found another job at Uitenhage Mental Health. “But then my boss from the department phoned them to ask if they have seen me. She said: ‘We are looking for our social worker.’” Rubushe then went back to resign “properly” from the department and took the job in Uitenhage.
“I took the bus there every day. It was a difficult job and there were high expectations from me,” she said. The travelling was very taxing. Then I heard a new hospital for African people was opening in Zwide. I phoned the superintendent. God was always on my side. I said to (the superintendent): Don’t you think your hospital needs a social worker? He said, ‘You are welcome my dear. You can come’. I walked into that job.”
She left 38 years later. Always impeccably dressed and fond of colour-blocking, Rubushe became an iconic figure at the busy hospital. On her office door, there was a poster with big blue letters telling everyone where she is: In the office, at a meeting, on ward rounds, on leave, on lunch.
“I think the biggest problem in those early years was children with malnutrition. We didn’t have a paediatric ward, only one for babies with gastro. I walked into the ward one day and I saw a baby. ‘Has this child been burned?’ I asked the nurse. She said, ‘No. This child is suffering of acute malnutrition.’ I learned a lot in those early years.
“You must understand that those mothers didn’t have the privilege of child support. They would just feed their babies what they had. They would roast flour and make porridge and feed that to the child. There was no nutrition in that. Also, they gave them black coffee in their bottles. Just because they had nothing else.
“Back then though we didn’t have many cases of abandonment. Mothers were caring and reliable. They had no child support or grants, the dads could just leave, but let me tell you, those mothers tried their best. Even if they had nothing,” she said. “Also there were almost no cases of sexual abuse.”
From the 1990s, as the Eastern Cape was hit by the HIV/Aids pandemic, nurses and doctors would send patients to Rubushe for counselling.
“We saw a lot of patients at the time. People were just brought to the hospital to die. There was so much denial. Everybody was hostile and aggressive. We had to train the nurses to keep the files that family members couldn’t look at. Many girls were hiding that they were sick. A lot of them died. They wouldn’t admit to anything. I would go to them and ask: “Are you still not ready? You are dying. We must tell your family. They would say, ‘No. My mother drinks,’ they would add. ‘She will tell everybody.’
“When we started testing women at the ante-natal clinic for the virus, they would be sent to me. They would sit in my office and cry and shout. The men would never admit anything. I would tell them after they cried for a while: ‘You can’t just sit here crying. We have to do something.’
“That day, the day we heard that Nevirapine was coming, that was a wonderful day.”
Then the cases of children and babies being raped started.
“Their moms would sometimes only bring them when their bodies were ravaged by infection or if they were injured. She remembered the particularly disturbing case of a six-year-old girl whose attacker told her mom to dress her up as he was taking her to a birthday party. He took her to the bush and he raped her. Then he left her there. I sat with that mother for hours. ‘You are going to open a case, this is cruel,’ I told her.
“As a social worker, advocacy for your patients is so important. There is no other way to protect children, vulnerable women and the frail elderly.”
When Dora Nginza Hospital was incorporated into Port Elizabeth hospital complex in 2004, Rubushe was asked to look after pregnant women and new mothers, and specialist pediatric cases from all over the province were sent to the hospital.
“Suddenly we had a lot of patients,” she said. “And they had more than just gastro.”
She said around this time the abandonment of newborns became a disturbing trend in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro. Babies were found in dustbins, abandoned in fields and at shopping malls.
In a particularly disturbing case, a newborn was found dumped on top of a drain at a fast food outlet close to the hospital. The baby was wrapped in a blanket soaked in petrol.
“God was on my side that day,” Rubushe said. “That mother dumped the baby in an area where the community was vigilant. They saw the name tag. She was in a hurry so she forgot to take it off. Community members handed her the name tag and she traced the mother.
“We worked through the night. The nurses saw me at my office and asked: ‘Are you working night shift now?’ I said it was an honour to serve this baby.”
With the help of the police, she found the mom at the mother’s boyfriend’s house. “She was lying in a double bed watching a big-screen television,” Rubushe said. She had the mother arrested.
“I was angry that day. That mother attended the counselling and education sessions I gave at the hospital. I would tell the women: Don’t abandon your baby. If you have a problem come to me. Let’s help you.”
But later she went to see the prosecutor. “I asked that they only give the mom a warning.”
In another case she got the police to share a picture of a baby who was buried alive in a shallow grave with communities in the KwaDwesi area.
“Everybody was so angry. They saw the mother boarding a taxi to escape. They stopped that taxi and she was arrested.”
The baby was later adopted. “Those moms would never tell you why they did it,” she said.
On another occasion, she flew to Cape Town to deliver an abandoned baby to a grandmother.
Recently she managed to reunite a woman with dementia with her family after she had been missing for four years. It later turned out that the woman came from Middelburg but was only partially sighted and got on the wrong bus that brought her to Port Elizabeth. Rubushe just kept on visiting her, waiting for her to have a good day.
“That was a wonderful day when we found her family by the grace of God. They sent me pictures of the party they gave her when she returned. I liked what the community told her: ‘You came home. You are welcome.’”
Another man was on his death bed when Rubushe started looking for his family. They had not seen him in 40 years. “Later his sister would say that they were grateful that they could bury him with his people.”
But no other story is told more often about Rubushe, who has legendary status in the halls of the hospital, than the one of her rescuing a sex worker.
“I was put under great strain by sex workers. They would come to the hospital and deliver their babies. And then they would just leave them at the hospital.”
The women in question had abandoned a baby at the hospital in 2015. This child was sent to her family who were tracked down in the Northern Cape by Rubushe. Rubushe looked for her for days to send her back to her family but she had disappeared in Port Elizabeth’s Central area.
“I am all about family,” Rubushe said. “Relationships are very important. When the woman’s brother was here he really wanted to find her and take her home as well as the baby. I asked the security guards in Central to help me find her but we had no success. I waited at the shop at a garage where people said she often came to buy cigarettes but there was no sight of her. I even went to a bar to hear if nobody has seen her. I left Central with a broken heart,” she said.
A few years later, however, the woman came back to the hospital to have another baby. Rubushe sprung into action.
“I begged the nurses not to let her out of their sight. Please, good people, I would tell them, we can’t have this happen again. We knew we couldn’t trust her. The nurses were busy so I asked the patients to help us watch her.”
Her family was keen to get her back but they didn’t have money to travel to Port Elizabeth.
“I couldn’t put her on a bus. So I thought let’s put her and the baby in an ambulance.”
She went all the way to superintendent-general Thobile Mbengashe to get authorisation for the trip.
“I said to the Emergency Medical Service, you must give me your best driver. This will be like transporting a prisoner.”
While the first part of the trip went well, the ambulance had to stop in Cradock so that Rubushe and the patients could be handed over to another driver who would take them further.
“She wanted to go to the toilet. Then she didn’t come back. I saw all these men standing there at the garage and I thought, we surely lost her. After running in the same direction, Rubushe finally found her.
“When we came back the driver said to me, ‘Pamela, you almost gave me a heart attack. They all told me that I must look after you as best I can,” the driver told me.”
After two days they reached their destination. The family came out and I just said: “Oh, thank you, God. At last.”
The family was so happy to see her and the baby. They said: “God bless you, social worker. I said I sacrificed a lot to get her here. Now you need to look after her well.”
While she officially retired at the end of January her phone has never been busier. “The nurses at the clinics don’t know how to deal with teenage pregnancy and child neglect. They phone to say I must come help. There is a free clinic for psychiatric patients where I also want to go help.
“I am here to serve my community. I treat people with dignity. It is unfair towards all of those in the unemployment line if you have a job and you are not doing it. I am worried about the patients I am leaving behind at the hospital. When I went on leave they would phone and one the day I came back they would line up in the passage to see me. They are just human beings. They need someone to come back to. Now they will be told that she is gone for good. That makes me sad. But they still find me. Even when I go shopping they come to share their problems they want me to help,” she said. MC
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