Soweto’s Secret War Zone


The third largest hospital on the planet lies nestled in the suburbs of Soweto and quietly continues to provide service to the over-million people who live there, sometimes people from places as far as Klerksdorp, and it seems to slip into the shadows of the public’s awareness. Obscured as it is by the conjoined smoke of all of Soweto’s nightly braziers, Chris Hani–Baragwanath Hospital stands as a Shangri-La to the people of the township amidst a whirlwind of crime, alcohol and drug-fuelled violence. Unable by law to bar people that have come walking through its doors, the hospital cares for far, far more people than they have beds for and sometimes the dead and dying of Soweto litter its hallways. Once a military hospital for the British during the Second World War, Baragwanath now cares for those embroiled in a different kind of conflict.

The hospital remains world famous in the medical community for its trauma department. The same trauma department that international medical students are champing at the bit to learn and work in; the same department that can easily see over three hundred patients a night of which over a hundred are in critical condition and as Dr Barbaro Monzon, who worked in the trauma department from 2008 to 2015, puts it “Every night is like a war-zone”. He looks aside and sighs, “…especially on weekends”. Dr Monzon says that most of the injuries are caused by interpersonal violence. Gunshots, stabbings, and beatings – he’s seen it all.


“It’s multi-factorial” he says, when asked why he thinks the populace in Soweto is prone to such high degrees of interpersonal violence,” – poverty plays definitely a big role. Alcohol consumption and probably drugs also, but that’s a widespread issue in South Africa”.

It must also be noted that the extremely high rate violence of Soweto is in direct relation to its massive population, but even so, Dr Monzon believes that it remains unusually high.

The topic of government underfunding raises its head again and again while interviewing the doctor. “All government run hospitals have a major problem with funding and allocation of resources and it affects every level of the hospital”, and in Baragwanath when there are more patients than resources, many patients become disadvantaged as materials are split between those who need them more and those who need them less. We ask the doctor if he’s ever seen patients die because of being disadvantaged by this limitation of resources. “Occasionally, yes.”

He assures us that even though the hospital was underfunded, under-resourced and understaffed, the doctors and nurses ‘got things done’ and that without them and their wealth of experience the vast majority of those critical patients would surely have died.

Dr Maria del Carmen Ortega, an anaesthesiologist who worked at the hospital from 2006 to 2014, says that the hospital is truly special because of the people who work there and it’s because of their singular passion to aid the people of Soweto that the hospital runs as it does. “You have to be a certain kind of person to work at Bara’”, Dr Ortega says, “You don’t have to show anybody who you are or what you have to bring. It’s like everyone is working for the sake of the patients.”

Dr Ortega worked extensively in Baragwanath’s maternity unit where there can be as many as four hundred deliveries in a single day. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming”, she says and that the cases you have to deal with can affect you emotionally, especially when you’re working a shift from 4 pm to 8 am every day. The 47-year-old mother of two says that many times mothers in labour arrive too late or sometimes there are no beds for them to deliver in.

“These women are so sick, and the babies get so sick and can die so easy”. Many times patients develop dreadful haemorrhaging from being in labour for so long without being attended. Dr Ortega’s seen many women give birth on waiting chairs and even on the floor in the hallways.

It doesn’t help the situation when 3 in 5 maternity patients are wracked with HIV and AIDS. A situation where you have to take care of yourself as well, and there would be absolutely no way to continue like this unless you had a professional and passionate staff to work with. She applauds Baragwanath’s nurses in particular without whom the hospital would surely fall apart.



Dr Ortega lightens up finally when speaking about the unique and often times humorous atmosphere at the hospital. Everywhere you see and go there are problems and all you can do is laugh at the grave apathy shown by the government for the hospital and its patients. She smiles sadly recalling how a group of four to five tiny children often have to share a single bed as it’s wheeled through the hospital’s long corridors towards and from the different wards along its 3 km breadth.

Comedy aside, Dr Ortega believes that Baragwanath hasn’t changed since she left and that it would take the government millions of Rand to cure the hospital of all of its ills but there are no better doctors than those on-call at Chris Hani Baragwanath anywhere else in South Africa, maybe even the world.

Everyone knows what Baragwanath is but no-one cares to do anything about its crippling deficits in resources. No-one seems to talk about Baragwanath anymore, it’s so ‘been there, done that’ in 2017, but the loss of life that could be avoided by simply stocking and staffing the hospital appropriately speaks louder than any previous news story about the venerable health centre. The “well, it’s up to the government” excuse has come and gone. The government clearly doesn’t care and neither does anyone who doesn’t live in Soweto and the surrounding areas, but it goes farther than that – much farther. The vicious cycle of poverty many Sowetans are trapped in is the leading cause of the hospital’s enormous daily check-ins, and until they receive the aid the government has promised them they will continue fighting and dying in the streets of Africa’s most famous township in a secret war with no end in sight.


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