Each year on the first day of December I think of all the people I know who died of or were affected by Aids. Like most everyone else in this strange and beautiful country this day isn’t an abstraction, but a real reminder of suffering and loss. Of the cruelty with which AIDS takes lives, destroys families and the unfair manner in which so many meet their fate. Mostly I think of the savage cruelty of our government which for so long turned its back, abandoned its responsibility, and yet counselled the sick and dying with superstition or stupidity.
*Maria was about thirteen years old when she was gang-raped. By the time she was correctly diagnosed through blood tests at a clinic she had full-blown Aids, which the staff told Maria’s family about, rather than informing and counselling her directly. Like our government at that time which abandoned people with Aids, Maria’s family excised her from the small, rural town that was her home and sent her to Johannesburg to die. After being shunted around for months, Maria was taken to a compassionate facility-cum-hospice for those with Aids who are deserted. She arrived incredibly weak because the oral thrush and sores in her mouth and throat made it impossible to eat. Continuous diarrhoea had rendered her skeletal.
In the year before Maria died, she was treated and was able to eat, got slightly stronger, went back to school where she did well (all things considered), and slowly started speaking to others. When she arrived she was mute and disassociated. In the month of her death she was reconnected with her family and her mother was with her when she passed. Maria’s story’s story is typical for that period of Aids denialism which wreaked unspeakable destruction beyond the deaths that can be directly attributed to that time of selfish ignorance.
Around the same time when Maria was brought in there was a man who had been cast out on a rubbish dump in Jozi. A pair of youths rode past him twice before bringing him in. The homeless man was given a bath, clothed in clean pyjamas, put in a warm bed and someone sat with him through the night. He died quietly the next morning.
Leonie died in a state hospital because she didn’t have a private medical aid and her family were without the means to finance treatment at a private hospital. She manifest flu-like symptoms on a Sunday in the eighties when Aids, it was rumoured, was being spread by airline stewards and the media had only recently stopped calling it GRID, an acronym for gay-related immune deficiency.
I looked after Leonie’s daughter while she was hospitalised and we visited each day from Monday through to Thursday. On the last day we saw Leonie she asked me for a ‘smoothie’, which was her favourite drink and something we’d made together often. Friday was a rush as I was much younger and unused to caring for little children. In the haste of feeding, bathing, brushing teeth and dressing for two, I didn’t have time to make the blend and picked up a yoghurt drink at the café on the way out instead.
Leonie’s daughter skipped into her mum’s room ahead of me, but the bed was empty and had been stripped down. I presumed Leonie had just been moved to another ward and asked the nurse, who called the doctor, who phoned another hospital where Leonie had been sent. I was told the critical unit in this one was full. The doctor made two more calls, then turned around and told me that she was dead. Leonie had expired on a trolley in a passage unattended, as nurses buzzed around her at some hospital on the West Rand.
I identified her body at the morgue of that hospital, expecting the mortuary to look a lot like those places you see in the movies or on TV. You know… the casters that smoothly enable large drawers to be pulled from a fridge to reveal a body stretched out and covered by cloth, or just lying slightly blue and bare. As I walked across the hospital lawn it was the sweet stench that hit me first. Two men were playing cards, another reading the newspaper. I told them I had come to identify Leonie’s body and they opened one steel door of a large section of what was a massive fridge. Inside bodies were piled on each other, each wound in white plastic, much of the same sort that you or I would use to put garbage into.
The man found the tag with Leonie’s name and then tugged at her neck to get her body out and her head marginally exposed. It was quite a struggle because of the number of plastic-wrapped corpses stacked above hers. The smell was overwhelmingly nauseating as the mortuary attendant pulled at the opaque wrapping around her head to reveal her face. It didn’t look like her, it couldn’t be her but there was that unmistakeable mole right next to her mouth. On the way out I expressed to the men playing cards that I couldn’t believe she had died of flu so very quickly. They smiled sardonically and told me it wasn’t that bug which had taken her, but a killer cocktail of Aids and TB. (They didn’t directly use the words “killer cocktail” – that I only read about later.)
Years later I was at my desk working at my computer when an urgent call came in for someone who worked for me. Her daughter had been attacked in Diepsloot on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, and there was no verification of whether the young woman was alive or dead. We piled into the car and flew through as fast as we could, arriving before the ambulance.
Dora was lying on her side. She had been raped and was stabbed sixteen times in the back and neck. The knife had lodged between her vertebra with the force of the last entry and the handle had snapped off, which likely saved her life.
The ambulance finally arrived and took her to Helen Joseph Hospital before noon. Hours later, close to midnight I was pacing up and down in emergency still waiting for the police to come through with a rape kit, to take Dora’s statement and to collect the evidence of her assault. She also needed antiretroviral treatment which wasn’t on hand at this public hospital, and which the two student doctors in charge of the night shift were trying to source from elsewhere. About fifteen hours had passed since Dora had been raped and stabbed and she was still lying on a trolley in emergency.
I remember I very selfishly thought I’d rather be watching DStv and drinking whisky. But there I was and instead I watched as blood gushed from a large gaping wound on a young boy’s head. The wound was so deep you can see the white of his skull. The pink flesh under his cropped black hair was intermittently obscured by the blood that flowed past his ear to take a path down his shoulder. Already his white vest soaked up too much of it, and it was now flowing down his shoulder and dripping onto the floor.
The male nurse across the room looked at him with disapproval. The boy was dazed and confused – he’d lost quite a bit of blood. The nurse moaned at him in Zulu, walked away and came back with a black refuse bag that he wedged under the boy’s wheelchair so the blood would drop and congeal on the plastic and not the floor. I guessed congealed blood could be quite a bugger to clean.
I glanced around the room. There were two Muslim shopkeepers with puncture wounds to the gut. A drunken woman who had been beaten up by her husband. A man with a gunshot wound to the leg, and an oke on a stretcher who had lacerations all over his face. I couldn’t discern whether he was sleeping, comatose or dead. As the emergency ward doors flapped open and closed the continual chaos of ambulances coming and going, bringing in more wounded, continued.
I sat down for what seemed like forever and counted the ticking of the clock on the wall. I stood up and walked to the casualty where, to amuse myself, I flicked through the register to get insight into violence in Jozi. The admissions read: Gunshot wound. Stab wound. Gunshot wound. Domestic violence. Gunshot wound. Rape. Gunshot wound. Gunshot DOA?
I paced through to the admission’s area. The benches were full of people asleep, huddled in blankets – people waiting for admissions to open the following day so they had a jump on the queue. I spoke to someone who said she’d been there most of the day. This is what is done in local public hospitals – people wait. And wait. And wait.
I looked at my watch. I’d been at the hospital for six hours. Dora was moving on for seventeen on that cold, steel trolley. Dora’s drama started at about nine in the morning when she was attacked by her ex in front of their two year old child.
I had met him a few times before it happened and remember him as a well-spoken, debonair man whom the police let out of jail on domestic violence charges previously because he was well dressed, relatively well-known in Diepsloot and was God-fearing. The same man plunged the kind of knife on sale at Shoprite (the ones with a yellow plastic handle), into his girlfriend’s body sixteen times. I knew that because I counted the puncture wounds on the doctor’s diagram and read the report. The number sixteen kept circling my mind.
“Hey squeeza. You are soooo beaaaaaaaautifull. Give me your number squeeza.”
My thoughts were distracted by a man flirting with the immigrant intern who had finely chiselled features at the trauma desk. Stethoscope around her neck, she was looking down her nose at the man two heads shorter than her. He could hardly stand upright. He was filthy. His forehead was sliced open and there was blood dribbling down his eye. His shirt was torn, muddied and bloodied. He was wearing broken, dirty jeans and only one shoe. “Come on. Give me your number squeeza. You are lovely. I will make you sooooo happy.”
The trainee doctor gave him a condescending look and said in a French-African accent: “Can you not see what you look like? Can you not recognise that you have been stabbed and still you are trying to proposition me? Sit down and wait. You are drunk and behaving like a stupid fool.”
The male nurse, who looked more like a celebrity bodyguard than a medical worker lead the man back to a chair, put black plastic under the seat and there he sat like so many others, waiting. Bleeding and waiting.
I spent most of the time I was at Helen Joseph arguing, shouting or beseeching anyone on duty who’d listen. Why was there no rape kit? Why were there no antiretroviral drugs? When the rape kit arrived with a detective in the early hours of the morning why was there no one on hand trained to use it? These were repeated questions to which there were no answers in the Jo’burg public hospital which at the time was fielding a lion’s share of city trauma cases.
What is the end of this story?
Dora was infected with the HIV virus and is now living with Aids. She is partially paralysed in her one arm, can no longer work and tries to survive with her children on a state subsidy. Her ex-boyfriend walked free after the evidence that was eventually collected using the rape kit was ‘lost’. It was suspected that he bribed the police, given that all the other domestic violence charges against him were ‘dropped’. Dora’s mother died about two weeks after Dora’s attack because of a stress induced asthma attack. I was with her when it happened. Despite summonsing two ambulances and three doctors who desperately tried to resuscitate her, she was pronounced brain dead on arrival at the nearest public hospital and died shortly thereafter.
When I think of those I people I have known, who have died or now live with Aids, I recall what author and former Umkhonto weSizwe bomber Harold Strachan once wrote: “It may be a lot easier to die in South Africa, but at least it won’t be of boredom.” DM
(* Editor’s note – the names in this opinion have been changed for obvious reasons.)
Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.
"Sometimes the best way to help someone is just to be near them." ~ Veronica Roth