Migrants in South Africa have access to healthcare: why it’s kicking up a storm


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A political storm has erupted in South Africa after a video went viral showing the health minister for the Limpopo province – which borders Zimbabwe – berating a Zimbabwean woman who was seeking healthcare. Responses have been divided. Some have called for Phophi Ramathuba to step down on the grounds that verbally abusing a patient was out of order. Others have supported her, saying she reflects the sentiments of South Africans living in the area. The Conversation Africa spoke to Kudakwashe Vanyoro, who has done research on the treatment of migrants in South Africa’s healthcare sector, to unpack the issue.

What does the law say about treating non-South Africans?

According to South Africa’s National Health Act, primary healthcare facilities run by the state must provide free care to everyone, except for people covered by private medical aid schemes.

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The country’s Refugee Act of 1998 stipulates that refugees are entitled to the same access to treatment and “basic healthcare services” as citizens in public healthcare facilities. This also applies to undocumented migrants who are citizens of any country in the Southern Africa Development Community. For higher levels of care, refugees and migrants must pass a means test. In some situations, irregular migrants must pay the whole cost of medical services.

These laws reflect the country’s constitution. Section 27 states that healthcare is a right that should be afforded to everyone.

In this context, medical xenophobia is a term that scholars use to describe negative attitudes, perceptions and practices of healthcare providers towards non-national patients on the basis of their national origin. Providers include frontline staff like nurses, doctors, clerks and security personnel.

The main idea that informs this discrimination is that the patient is an outsider and therefore “undeserving” of care in a public facility. The thinking is that non-nationals are over-burdening the public healthcare system by using resources that are already scarce.

In my view, medical xenophobia is sustained by unfounded myths such as the myth that non-nationals come to South Africa in buses to give birth or to get access to HIV treatment. These attitudes and perceptions translate into exclusionary practices such as denial of treatment or delay in accessing services.

In most instances, language, documentation and referral systems are used as vehicles of this discrimination. Healthcare providers scapegoat non-nationals for being unable to speak the local language, lacking referral letters or being undocumented.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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