Posts falsely claim that Zimbabwean patient from viral SA video received big payout

A South African politician made headlines in 2022 when a video went viral of her accusing a pregnant Zimbabwean patient of burdening the public healthcare system. Social media posts are now claiming the same hospital patient was awarded millions after filing a lawsuit. However, this is misleading: the claim conflates two cases involving Zimbabwean nationals and presents them as one incident. 

“Came to SA on a wheelbarrow and left with R17 million,” reads an X post published on May 24, 2024. 

The post includes the viral 2022 video and a picture of a man pushing a pregnant woman in a wheelbarrow.

Screenshot of the misleading X post, taken on May 27, 2024

In the video, Phophi Ramathuba -- who is a member of the executive council (MEC) in charge of health for the Limpopo provincial legislature -- is seen speaking to a patient in bed, telling her that Zimbabweans are straining the South African public health service. 

Ramathuba adds that Zimbabwe does not give South Africa any financial help to care for its citizens, implying foreigners are a burden (archived here).

The rest of the post claims that “the court has awarded R17,2 million to an undocumented Zimbabwean woman whose newborn suffered cerebral palsy as a result of negligence by the nursing staff at public hospital in Limpopo”.

Tapping into growing xenophobia in South Africa, the post was shared by an account affiliated with the anti-migrant group-turned-political-party Operation Dudula -- which means “push back” in isiZulu (archived here).

Altogether, the post has been liked, reposted and commented on more than 2,000 times.

Another X account called “The Truth Panther” shared a similar claim about a “Zimbabwean woman who crossed the border to give birth in SA” and was awarded the same amount after suing for medical negligence, also in Limpopo.

Screenshot of the misleading post on X, taken on May 27, 2024

The post includes a link to a similarly-named blog called “News Panther” where further details about the legal claim are contained in a short report. The blog cites South African newspaper Sowetan as its source.

However, Sowetan did not publish the information as news, but as a letter from one of its readers dated May 23, 2024, and headlined: “Medical negligent payouts strain healthcare” (archived here).

Screenshot of the reader''s letter taken from the Sowetan website

The letter correctly talks about the negligence payout worth R17.2 million (approximately $900,000) awarded to a Zimbabwean mother but errs by stating that it happened in Limpopo, when in fact the matter took place in the North West province. Sowetan corrected the mistake.

Screenshot of the Sowetan’s correction

The author of the letter, who argued in favour of capping medical payouts, wrote that overcrowded hospitals and a shortage of nurses contributed to negligence, in part because “pregnant women from Zimbabwe have regarded it as normal to cross the border when closer to labour”.

The same feelings were expressed publicly by Ramathuba in the viral video in 2022 – and could explain how two unrelated events that occurred in different provinces nearly a decade apart circulated on social media as one and the same.

In short, the woman admonished by Ramathuba in 2022 was not the beneficiary of the multi-million rand damages claim.

Hefty lawsuit

A Zimbabwean woman filed a claim for damages against the North West provincial health department after hospital staff were found to have acted negligently in 2013 during her child’s birth, which led to the infant developing cerebral palsy.

The North West High Court in Mafikeng ruled on May 16, 2024, that the mother was to be compensated for future medical expenses and costs related to the administration of a trust fund (archived here). The court provided for an amount of R17,260,423.20.

Screenshot taken from the high court order

The defendant in the lawsuit was Ramathuba’s counterpart in the North West province, Madoda Sambatha.

The unnamed plaintiff testified that she had been in South Africa since 2005 and obtained her Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) in 2010 (archived here).

This means she was not an undocumented migrant, as one post claimed.

Ramathuba, meanwhile, was appointed to her current post in 2015 – two years after the woman gave birth (archived here). 

Since her viral video in 2022, Ramathuba has gained support from anti-migrant groups and South Africans who believe foreigners are burdening the country’s public health system. 

In August 2022, protestors blocked patients from entering a hospital -- based on their skin tone and language (archived here).

Woman in wheelbarrow

A reverse image search showed that the picture of the woman in a wheelbarrow was taken by the Associated Press (AP) in 2008 and is unrelated to South Africa.

The caption of the photograph (archived here) taken by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi reads: “Misheck Bunyira carries his wife, Janet in the late stages of pregnancy to hospital by wheelbarrow in Epworth, Harare, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008. Zimbabwe's health system, once the envy of many African nations, is in a state of collapse with many hospitals either completely shut down or unable to admit new patients.”

Screenshot of the image as it appears in AP’s archives

South Africa’s cabinet recently approved the final White Paper on Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Protection. One proposed change to the legal framework includes the country’s withdrawal from the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention (archived here). 

The 1951 Convention in essence prohibits a signatory government from returning individuals, by detention or deportation, to their countries of origin where they may face torture or other forms of harm.

Some human rights organisations (archived here) are “strongly opposed” to the planned law, calling it “unprecedented and regressive”.

AFP Fact Check reported that migration was a major topic of disinformation ahead of South Africa's elections on May 29, 2024 (archived here). 

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