Maverick Citizen


Queuing for my right to healthcare services

Queuing for my right to healthcare services
Tshabalira Lebakeng discovered four years ago that he had diabetes. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Much is written about the poor state of public health in South Africa. Tshabalira Lebakeng has diabetes. He is also unemployed and homeless and must visit his local clinic in Soweto every month. He tells the story of his struggle to get treatment to Harriet Perlman.

In October 2018, I found out I had diabetes. At the time I didn’t understand what it was. But I was always dizzy and hungry like an old cow. I was losing fluids in my body and I couldn’t sleep at night. One day my aunt suggested I go to the clinic to check it out. I am not a person who had visited the clinic much because I just didn’t get sick. 

I arrived there at 8.30am. My first mistake.

There was a long long line of people queuing next to the clinic wall. Some people I knew and some I didn’t. Pregnant girls and old mamas. Sick people in pain who looked like they could die anytime. Old magogos and madalas.

While waiting in line you become friends. We talk about politics and how crazed Members of Parliament eat our tax money and drive big cars and live in big houses. They know nothing about waiting in long queues outside clinics.

I was pissed off waiting. An old man standing next to me told me, “Boy if you don’t want to wait so long you must get here by 5am.”

Finally, about six hours later, I see the nurse and she tells me I have diabetes. I thought that this was the end. I had a bomb in my blood. I had heard stories about people who just fell down and died from diabetes. I struggled to walk home. What would I tell my aunt who had taken care of me for so many years?

When I opened the door my aunt saw my scared face. She said, “Is it sugar or HIV Tshaba? Whatever it is I’m with you.”

When I told people that I’m diabetic they told me crazy stories. Some said I should drink olive oil because my blood was not flowing very well. Others said I must drink marijuana water or it would kill my manhood! I had to go back to the clinic to get my medication. But I also wanted to find out about the illness and what I could and couldn’t eat.

So the next time I woke up at 4am and walked to the clinic. I arrived at 5am and waited outside for two and a half hours. This time I learnt about the war in the queue. When I arrived, there was only one or two in front of me. But when the doors opened at 7am suddenly there were more than 10 people in front of me and maybe 50 behind me.

These gogos and grandpas in front came with their sorry stories to me:

My grandson, I was standing here before you but, because it was very cold, I went back home to sleep a little bit. My child God will bless you and remember what the holy book says. A respectful child will live for long.”

I looked at her, but couldn’t call this old woman a liar.

When the clinic doors opened the sister was angry and wanted everyone to hurry up.

“Come in, come!” she said. “If I said there was free beer inside you would all be running.”


‘On the floor in my small room in Soweto there is a mountain of shoes. Only two are new. The rest are old. I don’t know why I don’t throw them out to make space. Maybe it’s because I want people to see how long I have been walking in Johannesburg.’ (Photo: Mark Lewis)

In my monthly follow-up visits, I got different information.

“Food is food. Eat everything,” one nurse told me. Another time I told the nurse I had no money to buy fruit. Can I drink orange juice? She said, “Yes, drink lots of it.” I subsequently found out this is wrong. Fruit juices are full of sugar.

Another time the nurse gave me high-blood meds. I said, “I don’t have high blood, I have diabetes.”

“Take these,” she said. “The government told me if you have diabetes I must give these to you, too.”

I was really struggling to get accurate information. But at the time I was lucky I had a job for a short time working on a TV series and my friend organised for me to see a private doctor who specialised in diabetes. She was so patient and took time to explain everything to me. She told me I mustn’t eat my favourite cow-head meat and pap. No more amagwenya or fried eggs.

I had a job then and could buy butternut and rye bread and eat salad. Unfortunately, the job didn’t last. 

One of the biggest challenges when you have diabetes and you don’t have a job or money is it is hard to eat healthy food. I should eat sorghum mealie meal, but a bag of sorghum costs R133. Regular white mealie meal is R80.

Many times, if there is only white mealie meal and cabbage to eat, that’s what I eat because I can’t buy my own food.

I must return to the clinic once a month. Quite a few times I waited the whole day only to be told that they had run out of meds. When the nurse told me, she said, “Don’t look at me like that. It’s not my fault. Your president didn’t pay the supplier.”

But I have met kind nurses too. I was on the street one day and a nurse from the clinic recognised me. “Hey Tshaba, your meds are there now. Come today and I will see you don’t wait so long.”

The clinic during Covid 

I remember when I first heard about Covid and we went into hard lockdown. All over social media it said if you go out you will be arrested. You must have a permit. I had run out of meds and needed to go to the clinic. I decided to go out – my clinic card would be my permit. 

Walking to the clinic at 4.30am was like walking down the road in a zombie movie. The street was so quiet. When I saw the nurse she told me about this Covid thing. She said, “This thing is killing people. Especially you diabetic people. If you don’t run home and your mask is not on properly, you will inhale it and in a second you will be dead. 

“Run for your life,” she said.

I said, “Are you sure?” She said, “Yes, watch it on TV.”

I ran home like hell. When I got home I told my aunt and she laughed and said I must just wear a mask and wash my hands properly. She told me what a chicken I was.

During Covid last year, the medicine shortages were really bad. I usually get three boxes of my meds for a month. One time the nurse opened one box and said three people must share it.

“Half a loaf is better than nothing,” she told us.

“No,” I wanted to reply, “I want a whole loaf. I am supposed to get a whole loaf.”

Since I heard I have diabetes I am accepting that I’m sick. I have to take my pills. Try to eat properly. But when you are unemployed eating healthy food is a challenge. If there is only cabbage for the week I eat cabbage. I don’t have money to change the menu.

When I think of going to the clinic every month I feel stressed out. I understand sometimes the medicines are not there. But why not send an SMS if they are out of pills. Or announce it in the morning. The change I would like to see at the clinic first is easy: Respect!

We are sick. Help us not give up hope. We have nowhere else to go. DM/MC


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