Sunday, 8 December 2013

Moved by Memories of South Africa


I was half thinking about focusing today's blog on the news released last week about the performance of many of our ambulance services. The headline news was that ambulances are taking longer to get to the scene than they did in the previous 2 years. The rise in time taken was worse in the East of England where it was taking 90 seconds longer than this time last year. The national target is to be on site within 8 minutes. It seemed really important, and it is in the context of our lives in the UK.

However, as I drove to work last Thursday the headline news was of Nelson Mandela’s death. I have been to South Africa a few times.The news of his death prompted a number of memories and thoughts. One thought was what on earth people living in the Soweto Townships for example might think about my focus on ambulance response times.

In 2004, I was invited to present a paper at the 1st Regional Congress of Social Psychiatry, hosted by the World Association for Social Psychiatry. The conference was held in Johannesburg. It was an interesting experience. I was there with 2 colleagues from the University of Leeds and 1 colleague from the University of Newcastle (Australia). The conference was located in a hotel complex very close to the airport. In fact I could see, feel and hear the planes taxiing to the end of the runway from my bedroom.

The hotel, once you got inside, was a completely artificial environment akin to the hotels in Las Vegas. The roof was painted with clouds, there were cafes with outside seating areas, that were really still inside, and lots of casinos, all of which had a sign at the entrance asking customers to deposit their guns at reception! It was quite a place. While there we were able to visit the surrounding area, which was full of signs of the past.

The Sowato (SOuth WEstern TOwnship) township was still there. This township was the scene of the Soweto Uprising in 1976, when there were mass protests over the South African governments policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English. The police response was to fire on the protesting students and some 23 people died on the first day of protest. Those killed included Hector Pieterson, a 13 year old school boy. The picture of the dying Hector being carried away from  the riot became the iconic image of these protests, which finally moved the international community to introduce economic and cultural sanctions.

I was also able to visit Nelson Mandela’s house, which is now a national museum. It felt very much like a privileged experience. I did get to sit on his bed, which felt rather like sitting on Freud’s couch (which I was forbidden to do when I visited Freud’s house in London). Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid revolutionary, and politician who spent 27 years in prison after being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow the government. An international campaign eventually secured his release in 1990.

In 1994, he became the first black president of South Africa. During his 5 year term of office as president, his government successfully started the process of tackling institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality, and promoting racial reconciliation. He reminded us all that: ‘what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived.  It is the difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead’. He really did make a difference to so many people, and not just those living in South Africa.

And if you do happen to live in South Africa, you might be pleased to know whilst there are no official ‘responses times’ in the South African Ambulance system, a response time of 15 minutes is usually achieved and seen as being acceptable.