Former Minister of Health receives honorary doctorate from TUT

17 October 2019

A former South African Minister of Health, Sponono Francinah Baloyi, has just received an Honorary Doctorate (Honoris Causa), during the Tshwane University of Technology’s annual Spring Graduations in recognition of the enormous role she played in improving and bringing public health to rural areas. The revered and celebrated public health activist’s illustrious career in nursing and public health spans almost 50 years.

Former Minister of Health, Sponono Baloyi, yesterday received an honorary doctorate from the University.

Dr Baloyi was also a former Minister of Health and Welfare in the KaNgwane Government. Between 1994 and 2004, she was a Member of the South African Parliament, during which time she played a vital role in introducing legislation to reduce the prevalence of Tuberculosis as well as preventable childhood disease, and to bring quality public health facilities to rural communities in the then Eastern Transvaal.

She was a delegate at CODESA and after the 1994 Democratic Elections she was elected as a Member of the South African Parliament. Ms Baloyi was among 490 members of the National Assembly, where she served for ten years. During this time, she played a vital role in introducing legislation and changing policies to reduce the prevalence of Tuberculosis as well as preventable childhood diseases and to bring quality public health facilities to rural communities.

Her career started in 1965, at the Rob Ferreira Hospital, Mbombela, after completing her general nursing and midwifery training. 

Her love for people and her passion for improving public health, drove her to enrol for training as a Public Health Nurse in 1971. Owing to her training, experience and commitment to the profession, she was offered the position of managing and supervising clinics as a Community Health Nurse at the Themba Hospital in White River in 1974. This was an extremely important appointment, since all the clinics in the then Eastern Transvaal fell under what was then known as the Themba Health Ward, with its head office under the Provincial Authority in Polokwane.

It was the beginning of a long journey of hard work to bring quality health and health care services to poor black communities in the area. The glaring inequalities in the provisioning and rendering of health services in the area were a result of the then apartheid system of Government. At that time, the Themba hospital was the only one servicing the entire Nsikazi region, as well as the Bongani hospital, a small TB hospital run by Catholic nuns and a doctor. 

The clinics were far from the hospital and up to 60 kilometres apart from each other. Patients had to walk long distances to access services, since transport was either very scarce or non-existent.

Tuberculosis and preventable childhood diseases such as measles, tetanus, whooping cough and diphtheria were common, with many babies dying from these preventable diseases. In addition, scabies and bilharzia were rife at schools, with the distinct smell of blood and sepsis from the pit toilets often hitting one when entering classrooms.

There were many villages under the control of chiefs and two municipal clinics. A family member or a village woman did home deliveries, while very few women would deliver at a clinic. Communities relied on traditional healers for the treatment of illnesses, since traditional, as well as cultural beliefs and customs played a role in the decision to use the clinic or first consult with ancestors, or to use a traditional healer. This practise had disastrous results in some instances. 

Ms Baloyi’s comprehensive public health training prepared her well for working in these rural conditions. 

The hospital management was very supportive of her work. They regularly discussed the challenges, and how the missionary based policies should be changed to address these. She was supported and encouraged to do the best she could and soon she started with Health Education, focusing on the promotion and prevention of diseases, Antenatal and Postnatal care, under-five-year-old childcare clinics, mass health education and immunisation campaigns. 

Ms Baloyi solicited the support of chiefs, community leaders, schools, churches, communities and anybody who would support her on her mission. The resistance from some community members because of their cultural beliefs, customs and reliance on traditional healers and casual beliefs of illnesses and diseases sometimes even resulted in attempts to assault the Public Health Nurses. 

However, as time passed, they managed to establish good working relationships with communities and their leaders. In general, this contributed to the development of communities and resulted in improved health services at the clinics. Infrastructure, staffing and adequate supply of medicine, doctors’ visits and health service delivery improved and communities were encouraged to and started using their services more, which posed new challenges in some clinics due to staff shortages. This became one of the most challenging periods in her career. With communities using clinic services more frequently and in bigger numbers, staffing at the busiest clinics had to be increased. However, the lack of good accommodation, distance from towns and working conditions, nurses did not want to work at clinics.

Since the diseases have been eradicated by that time, the clinics were providing the basic services expected at that level and Ms Baloyi started to focus on health professionals. At that time the KaNgwane homeland with a Department of Health and its own Head Office, was established and she was promoted to first nurse in charge of al clinic services in KaNgwane.

In 1984 Ms Baloyi became one of eight South Africans, selected from 2 000 applicants, to attend the USAID Leadership Programme in America. During this time, she visited rural and urban areas, met different Health Administrators and professionals and had an opportunity to share her South African experiences. 

On her return, she continued her work with the Health Professionals, presenting health talks on personal hygiene and cleanliness, introducing bi-monthly Study Group Meetings for nurses who never had in-service training, as well as orientation and in-service training sessions for nurses at the hospital.

Other changes she brought about, included an annual picnic for the nurses; introducing smart uniforms and encouraging them to be presentable and further their studies as part of their Professional Development; negotiating the equalisation of the salaries of clinic nurses who were not paid the same as hospital nurses; negotiating rank promotions, which affected their pensions and retirement benefits.

In 1992 Ms Baloyi was offered a British scholarship to enrol for a Masters’ Degree in Primary Heath Education in the United Kingdom. The same year, while studying at Bristol University, she was appointed Minister of Health in South Africa, at the age of 52.

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