Beyond AIDS denialists creating inadequate treatment programs, the rebuilding and scale-up of South Africa’s health care system has been very slow since the ending of apartheid. The main driver of scale up of health service infrastructure was the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). In its first White Paper of 1994, the RDP noted: “Health services are fragmented, inefficient and ineffective, and resources are grossly mismanaged and poorly distributed. The situation in rural areas is particularly bad” (66). Between April 1994 and the end of 1998, the RDP built 500 new clinics which gave an additional 5 million people access to primary health care facilities (67). The RDP had an incredible set of goals to match the incredible odds the country was up against, but many still had criticisms. Many note that the successes of the RDP are overshadowed by the enormity of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Critics of the RDP argue that access to healthcare only improved slightly under the RDP and that, even with moderately improved access, standards at many medical institutions declined rapidly. They cite, in the first place, that usage of healthcare facilities increased by just 1.6% between 1995 and 1999, and that even these modest improvements have been eclipsed by the advance of the AIDS pandemic and other health epidemics such as malaria. Between 1995 and 1998 life expectancy of South Africans fell from 64.1 years to 53.2 years, with AIDS patients sometimes occupying up to 40% of beds in public hospitals. This, say critics, is indicative of a “public health system… in crisis” rather than one undergoing positive transformation. Equally troubling has been declining quality of services […] for example, that in Soweto 950,000 patients attended primary healthcare clinics in 1994 where they were seen by 800 nurses — but by 2000 the number of patients had spiraled to about 2,000,000 while the number of nurses had fallen to just 500 (68).
The difficulties of apartheid have transferred over as the country has attempted to rebuild. There remain serious deficiencies in trained health workers, even regressions. More people are using health services, but more health services are not readily available. More and more people need access to treatment for HIV/AIDS, but the inadequacies in health service infrastructure combined with denial policies have limited that access. The RDP White Paper only had one small section on AIDS, Section 2.12.8 reads:
Sexual health and AIDS. A programme to combat the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and AIDS must include the active and early treatment of these diseases at all health facilities, plus mass education programmes which involve the mass media, schools and community organisations. The treatment of AIDS sufferers and those testing HIV positive must be with utmost respect for their continuing contributions to society. Discrimination will not be tolerated. AIDS education for rural communities, and especially for women, is a priority (69).
The numbers speak for themselves and the RDP has failed to achieve its intended goals. The biggest difficulty seems to be that the RDP and health infrastructure were not taken seriously. When the new ANC government was elected the RDP was its own department, but then slowly was scaled back to its own program and now RDP programs exist within other governmental departments where priorities are not on health services or HIV/AIDS.
66. “Health Care.” The Reconstruction and Development Programme. White Paper, 1994.
67. Lodge, Tom. “The RDP: Delivery and Performance” in “Politics in South Africa: From Mandela to Mbeki”, David Philip:Cape Town & Oxford, 2003.
69. “Health Care.” The Reconstruction and Development Programme. White Paper, 1994.