Robbed, kidnapped and hijacked: the perilous task of South Africa’s paramedics

paramedic treating an injured girl
Injured girl treated by paramedic at accident spot

“We do not expect to be robbed or held at gunpoint while saving lives,” says Levy Leburu, an emergency medical services (EMS) worker based in Jouberton near Klerksdorp in the North West province. 

In August he started an online petition to raise awareness about the ongoing and targeted attacks of paramedics – and other healthcare workers. 

“I am concerned about our safety. When you are responding to a life-threatening situation, the last thing that you want to worry about is your safety. We need people to know what is going on because there aren’t enough police [officers] out there to escort all the ambulances,” says Leburu.

Just over 5000 people have signed the petition so far. Leburu hopes this will convince the government to take their lives seriously, and provide armed security escorts for paramedics and ambulance crews traveling into dangerous areas or hotspots known as the Red Zones

Red Zones are usually areas where attacks are most likely to take place. The most common ruse criminals use is making a hoax call to emergency service. Paramedics who respond to the call would then be attacked or robbed of their valuables. 

“Perhaps our government can nominate local armed security companies to assist us. But the most important thing is that we depend on the community to take a stand against criminality so that we can work and serve them nicely,” he says.

North West health department responds

Leburu’s ultimate goal is to collect 10 000 signatures. Once this milestone is reached, he will present the petition to the MEC for health in the North West, Madoda Sambatha.   

Sambatha says the attacks on health personnel have made them feel that their working environment is unsafe and it calls for drastic measures because healthcare is a matter of life and death, which can never be suspended because of crime.  

He says Matlosana (former Klerksdorp) has proven to be prone to acts of gangsterism and crime even at the doorsteps of health facilities. In August two female paramedics were held at gunpoint in Jouberton near Klerksdorp while attending to a call. 

“I have been severely disturbed by this latest attack on our EMS personnel. I strongly condemn it and these criminals must be brought to book. It is even painful that they attack our female crew during Women’s Month, which goes to show how low our society has degenerated,” Sambatha says.

He says the department is engaging the security cluster to immediately provide armed security guards who will escort ambulance crews in areas such as Jouberton and Kanana that are known hotspots. But this is a temporary measure.

“We will also continue to engage the security cluster for a permanent solution.”

Other provinces weigh in

Attacks on paramedics have been happening across the country. The Eastern Cape Health department says it is very concerned about the attacks on EMS personnel which appear to be continuing unabated. 

“These unwarranted and senseless attacks are spread across the province, but in recent times they have been more prevalent in Nelson Mandela Bay. One attack is one too many,” says Mkhululi Ndamase, the spokesperson for the department.

Ndamase tells Health-e News that the latest attacks were in Tsolo and Qumbu respectively, where ambulances were pelted with stones while transporting patients.

No one was injured. 

“The department continuously engages with law enforcement agencies and where possible, ambulances are escorted by SAPS when going to known areas where attacks have frequently happened.”

“Communities must report those behind the attacks. The SAPS must arrest perpetrators. And our courts must impose harsh sentences on those found guilty,” he says.

In Gauteng, the health department says that it’s not just EMS workers that are being attacked, but healthcare workers in general.

Motalatale Modiba, the spokesperson for the department says Gauteng EMS has been meeting with community leaders to try to curb these attacks. One of the measures include having pick-up points in informal areas with no house numbers.

“Some of the recent incidents include the one of the 22nd July 2023 in Nellmapius, Mamelodi where an ambulance was hijacked, and EMS personnel were robbed of their personal and work belongings and kidnapped. The following day another crew was hijacked and robbed of their belongings and working tools at Brazzaville in Atteridgeville.” 

“We have now extended the services of the employee health wellness programme to 24 hours for all EMS personnel for trauma diffusion, counseling and referral to social workers. This has seen the department launch the first ever Wellness on Wheels intervention. Gauteng is the only province to offer such a unique intervention,” he says.

35 vehicle attacks in Western Cape

The Western Cape Department of Health and Wellness, says at least 35 attacks ranging from vehicle stoning and damages, verbal abuse to physical attacks have occurred this year. 

Mark van der Heever, the spokesperson for the department says whenever paramedics enter a Red Zone area or if they suspect danger, they are being escorted by the police. 

“The Red Zone areas change regularly, the current permanent red zones are Chicago in Paarl, Beacon Valley, Tafelsig in Mitchell’s Plain and Hanover Park. We ask members of the community to report incidents to their nearest police station without delay,” he says. – Health-e News

Author

  • Gcina Ntsaluba

    Gcina Ntsaluba is an Eastern Cape-born award winning investigative journalist who cut his teeth in journalism at the Daily Dispatch newspaper in East London.Ntsaluba was one of the first intake of interns at amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism in 2010 after winning the 2009 Mondi Shanduka South African Story of the Year for the story 'Broken Homes'.He has since worked for a number of publications including Media 24 Investigations, Independent Newspapers, Corruption Watch, The Citizen and City Press.

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