Trudy Thomas: Pioneering health activist
● Trudy Thomas, who has died at the age of 82, was a health activist and doctor who did pioneering community health work in the Eastern Cape under apartheid, and was the first health MEC in the post1994 Eastern Cape government.
She practised primary healthcare and community outreach in rural areas of the Ciskei homeland long before these terms were coined.
In the course of her work she was confronted with the full horror of the homeland system.
She wrote a letter to prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd providing him with evidence of its inhumanity based on her first-hand experience, which she hoped he wouldn’t be able to ignore.
He passed it to his wife, Betsie, who had trained as a social worker, and who sent Thomas a trite letter of sympathy.
Thomas was born in Krugersdorp on April 23 1936. Her father, Edwin, worked underground on the gold mines. He’d left school at 12 to support the family when his father, a stonemason from Cornwall who came to South Africa to work on the mines after gold was discovered in 1886, died.
Two uncles on her mother’s side were members of the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag, and Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging leader Eugene Terre’Blanche was a distant cousin.
Thomas started school at four, matriculated at 15 and went to the University of the Witwatersrand’s medical school, where she was one of two women in a class of 120, the rest being white men.
She made fudge and sold it door-to-door to help cover her fees. For the rest she relied on bank loans which took her many years to repay.
She and her future husband, Ian Harris, met over a cadaver they were dissecting. A day after graduating they married and did their internship at what was then Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.
Her most tragic cases were young men deliberately paralysed from the neck down to settle gang scores. They’d be taken behind a mine dump, held face down and told they’d never walk again. Then their spines would be stabbed with surgical precision to sever the spinal cord.
There was a whole ward of them at Bara.
She was there in 1960 when scores of women and children mutilated by dumdum bullets fired into their fleeing backs by the police during the Sharpeville massacre were brought in, so many that they had to put up tents in the grounds to accommodate them.
After completing their internship in 1961 the couple loaded their car with a newborn daughter and a parrot that squawked “Urgent case, doctor!” all the way to St Matthews mission hospital in the Amatola mountains in the Eastern Cape, which they ran for the next 14 years.
Thomas established a network of rural clinics in surrounding villages, which she regularly visited in an ancient VW Beetle. One day, with three small daughters on the back seat, the car got stuck on a narrow track with a steep incline on one side and a sheer drop on the other.
Thomas jumped out, opened the bonnet and was horrified to find there was no engine. Some men arrived, walked round the back and revealed to her the “missing” engine, which they soon got started.
A grandmother brought a badly malnourished infant to her.
“Why don’t you feed this child properly?” Thomas asked.
“Doctor, because I have no money, no man, no milk,” replied the grandmother.
It was “the most exact sociopolitical exposition” she’d ever heard of the effects of migrant labour, Thomas wrote in a memoir published last year.
The South African Medical Journal refused to publish a report she wrote on the tragic consequences of the homeland policy.
When vaccines for the most common killer diseases, like measles, diphtheria and tetanus, became available she ensured that every child in every village was immunised.
Long before the World Health Organisation “discovered” primary healthcare in the late ’70s, Thomas was implementing it. She initiated campaigns against cervical cancer and organised village health workers to go to every house getting women to visit their nearest clinic for a Pap smear.
Steve Biko’s wife, Ntsiki, was one of her nurses at St Matthews. When he was banned the security police put pressure on Thomas and her husband to fire her, which they ignored.
When the 1.6m Thomas met Biko, his opening line was: “I thought you were bigger.”
She collaborated with Biko and his lover Mamphela Ramphele in setting up clinics and community projects.
In 1979 she started the community health department at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in Mdantsane and ran a network of 20 clinics.
In 1984 she and her husband divorced.
After the ANC was unbanned she headed its Border health desk. After the 1994 elections Eastern Cape premier Raymond Mhlaba made her his health MEC. Her biggest challenge was unifying the Cape Provincial Administration health services with those in the former homelands. She found that Ciskei’s well-run missionary health services were in stark contrast to the “health disaster” that confronted her in the Transkei.
In 1997 Nelson Mandela laid the foundation stone for Mthatha Academic Hospital after Thomas had fought the National Treasury tooth and nail for the money. Addressing a packed stadium, Mandela told her to stand, then announced that he had asked the cabinet for R1-million for the hospital and they’d agreed.
She regarded it as one of her proudest achievements, but when it was completed she was not invited to the opening. By then her relationship with the ANC had collapsed over its refusal to allow her the money she needed to run a decent health service. She said the ANC didn’t care about the poor. Instead of the improved health service she’d hoped for in the new South Africa there was “a mindless, rudderless, decaying one”.
She lost her position after the 1999 election and resigned from the ANC in 2001. She said if she stayed she’d have to “obfuscate about whether HIV caused Aids and condone the withholding of pension monies from the elderly because of political and administrative bungling”.
In 2003 Rhodes University awarded her an honorary doctorate for her healthcare work.
Thomas, who suffered from dementia and a stroke in her last 18 months, is survived by four children.