Wednesday, 17 April, 2024
HomeA FocusHow independent is SA's new Health Ombudsman?

How independent is SA's new Health Ombudsman?

South Africa’s new Health Ombud took on his role this month as some health activists questioned his political allegiances with the ANC, his numerous business directorships, and also his age, notes MedicalBrief.

Ufrieda Ho writes in Daily Maverick that Professor Taole Resetselemang Mokoena (71), who is also the retired head of surgery from the University of Pretoria, is a staunch ANC loyalist and one-time chairperson of Chancellor House, the ANC’s investment company.

His business interests include 27 active directorships of companies, including several under the “Continental Africa” moniker.  In June 2008, the Mail and Guardian reported that Continental Africa Power Supplies, of which Mokoena was a major stakeholder, stood to score from a R1bn contract to supply transformers to Eskom.

Mokoena replaces Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, whose seven-year term ended on 31 May.

In announcing his appointment, Health Minister Joe Phaahla described Mokoena as an outstanding medical scholar, who has “transcended the globe to show the quality of South Africa’s academic prowess”, reports TimesLIVE.

“He recently retired as a professor and academic head of the department of surgery, and chief surgeon of the department of general surgery at Pretoria University and Steve Biko Academic Hospital… but continues his work on a part-time or sessional basis to teach, train and supervise undergraduate and post-graduate medical students and research.”

Mokoena’s clinical and research interests encompass immunology, oncology and endocrinology, and he was previously part of a renal transplant unit at the Universities of Natal and Witwatersrand.

He has served at different times on several national and professional bodies, including the SA Medical Association, Health Professions Council of SA, and Colleges of Medicine of SA.

He was also appointed to chair a panel for the investigation of surgical deaths at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in 1996/7, and a panel of inquiry into discrimination within the cardiology department at the same hospital.

The role of Health Ombud, even with its shortcomings and limitations, has become a critical vehicle for patients and their families to seek justice, accountability and recourse if they have been mistreated by the health sector, with thousands of complaints having come through the ombud office since it was established in 2013.

However, health systems analysts, health activists and a former Health Department insider who spoke to Maverick Citizen said there were clear red flags about Mokoena’s appointment.

Currently among the companies of which Mokoena holds directorships are health-related Continental Health Holdings (Pty) Ltd and Continental Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd. The other companies range from those involved with communications, to casino holdings, leadership consulting and freight services.

Multiple directorships of companies always raise the alarm for watchdogs about possible shelf companies, and questions about the quality of oversight and governance. Both are stipulated to meet fiduciary obligations according to the Companies Act.

“The ANC will not want to have another political embarrassment like the Life Esidimeni tragedy, so the question remains whether Mokoena is being placed in the role to protect the ANC,” one health systems analyst warned.

“Civil society should be making a fuss about his connections at Chancellor House because it makes him a stalwart, and a role like the ombud’s must be about independence and impartiality: the country is suffering in a crisis of an absence of accountability.”

Witch-hunt

Another controversy linked to Mokoena goes back to 2002 when he was board chairperson of the Medical Research Council. He and his fellow board members at the time agreed to a witch-hunt after the late Health Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang demanded an investigation to determine who had leaked an MRC report on Aids deaths to the press.

Ironically, Mokoena’s Health Ombud predecessor, Makgoba, then the MRC president, was one of the Minister’s “suspects” at the time.

The report, compiled by some of the country’s leading experts on mortality statistics, contradicted government claims at the time – and President Thabo Mbeki – that crime was the leading cause of death in South Africa.

Researchers found that, by the year 2000, Aids was the leading cause of death in the country.

Hennie van Vuuren, director of Open Secrets, said: “Since at least 2007 we have known that Chancellor House is a front to fund the ANC. It has used its leverage to assist private actors gain a foothold in South Africa through licensing engagements with the government. It has crossed every ethical line.

“Depending on Mokoena’s current relationship and role at Chancellor House there is a clear conflict of interest.”

A former ANC member who worked in a senior position in the Health Department said Mokoena would undoubtedly be an “insider and close comrade”, and thus a strategic appointment for the ruling party. However, as an academic and also as a surgeon, Mokoena should have good insights into understanding “what goes wrong in hospitals” in his ombud’s role.

“It has to be someone who can build institutional capacity; who can define the scope of the role in this second term because there’s a flood of complaints coming in.”

But regardless of how Mokoena tackles the role, “if he is compromised with connections at Chancellor House then questions must be asked”.

He has additional concerns that by the end of his term Mokoena will be 78, considerably senior for a role demanding stamina and energy.

Mokoena did his undergraduate studies at the University of Natal and holds a doctorate from Oxford University. He was previously appointed by then Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize to head up a quick turnaround investigation into the lack of personal protective equipment for health workers at the start of the pandemic.

‘Necessary questions’

Professor Eric Buch, a health systems specialist, was dean at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Pretoria University between 2010 and 2016 when Mokoena was head of surgery.

“There are necessary questions being raised and I’m sure Prof Mokoena will answer about his business involvements and take the right actions to resign from directorships if they impugn his independence in any way,” he said.

“I know him as a man of integrity, who has vast experience and is independently minded.”

For SECTION27’s Sasha Stevenson, the role of health ombud will enlarge as the implementation of the National Health Insurance looms. She said this makes the appointment of the correct person even more critical.

“As we move to NHI it means the ombud will have to have oversight over an even bigger section of the health system. We need someone with knowledge of the health system, who is effective, transparent and accountable, and who will also be fearless.”

 

Daily Maverick article – Activists red-flag ANC, business ties of man tipped to be new health ombud (Open access)

 

News24 article – Getting to know the new health ombud, Professor Taole Mokoena (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Good doctors require empathy – outgoing Health Ombud Makgoba

 

Mbeki slammed for repeating ‘misleading’ HIV/Aids statements

 

FF+ concern over loss of Makgoba as Health Ombud

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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