On 22 October 2013, I had a thoroughly inspiring tea with the Premier of the Western Cape Province, Helen Zille, at the elegant Southern Sun Cullinan Hotel on the Foreshore.
Well, sort of. The tea with the Premier bit, I mean.
To be honest, I sat at another table at the far end of the room, and never had a chance to engage her in a probing analysis of how to foster peace and prosperity in South Africa, nor even to exchange some light-hearted social chit-chat. But – we still had tea… and assorted sandwiches, scones and confectionary. I was attending the function with Glynnis and Max Schutte, the multi-talented duo who produce the marvelous Pinelands Muse community magazine every month.
The function, which was organised by the Children’s Hospital Trust, the fundraising arm of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Klipfontein Road, Rondebosch, was a delightful Morning Tea at which Premier Helen Zille was the keynote speaker. The topic of her talk was the valuable contribution of the ‘elders’ to the community.
The Children’s Hospital Trust must surely have one of the best public relations departments ever: engaging and passionate, helpful and professional. They create beautiful newsletters, illustrated with amazing photographs, draft informative and well-written press releases, and frequently update their website, their Facebook page (photos of the Morning Tea were uploaded within one or two days) and their Twitter newsfeed.
They are constantly holding fundraising events, while also raising awareness of all the incredible work ‘The Cross’ is doing to help the children of the Western Cape, and beyond, in the rest of South Africa as well as on the international stage.
I first encountered ‘The Cross’ in 2011, when I attended the Remembrance Day service at the Hospital, in my capacity as photographer-journalist-blogger for the Defence Reserves Provincial Office of the Western Cape. I had been so moved by the service and by the friendliness and dedication of the people I encountered, that I had written a blogpost about the event. Since then, I have attended several of their events, including their ground-breaking ceremony for the new centre to tackle childhood infectious diseases in 2012.
In case you don’t know, the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is the only dedicated children’s hospital in sub-Saharan Africa. The hospital is an iconic landmark, and has rightly received international acclaim for the excellent quality of health care it provides, specifically tailored to helping the little ones. They have recently opened (in October 2013), their new Centre for Childhood Infectious Diseases and the Research Centre for Adolescent and Child Health.
When Helen White, the Trust’s Communications Manager, welcomed us to the Morning Tea, she made the interesting comment that they would like to keep the burns unit and the trauma unit at the Hospital empty. It took a moment for this to sink in – until I realised that most burns and traumatic accidents are in fact preventable, and often the result of carelessness, thoughtlessness, or ignorance of simple safety precautions.
Premier Helen Zille praised the excellent quality work done by The Cross since its opening in 1956, and said that the hospital had always been close to her heart. She mentioned that much pioneer work in various fields of childhood diseases, as well as in the specialised areas of trauma and burns, has been done by the Hospital, with many cutting-edge techniques have been developed. Not surprisingly, the Hospital is well-known internationally for the quality of care offered. Moreover, these skills have also been transferred to doctors from outside South Africa, who then made good use of these skills back in their own countries.
She remarked that South Africans are well known for ‘making a plan’ when their backs are against the wall, and that the Hospital encapsulates this perfectly, as a platform that is a magnet for skilled people. Instead of big individuals, she said, South Africa – and the African continent – needs big institutions, as these will outlast the individuals. Pointing to the Circle of Life posters all around her, she said that this was the way to build great institutions with an enduring legacy.
Liz Linsell, the Head of the Legacy Programme, explained what the Circle of Life programme was about – it encourages individuals to gift legacies and donations to the Hospital, whether during their lifetimes, or in their Wills. Much of their work is only possible thanks to the continued generosity of their donors, patrons and supporters, and in fact, these funds from private individuals are vital for ensuring the future financial survival of the Hospital.
The contributions of donors are commemorated in the Garden of Remembrance at the Hospital, which is dedicated to Mr Vyvyen Watson, a World War II veteran who was the Chairman of the Red Cross Hospital’s building committee, when the hospital was being built in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She also mentioned that, thanks to an extremely generous bequest in a Will, the construction of the Centre for Childhood Infectious Diseases could be completed far ahead of schedule.
Liz then introduced each of the ‘elders’ sitting at the same table as Premier Helen Zille, highlighting the important role that they had played through the years, by supporting the Hospital in various ways.
Mr Colin Eglin, who had been awarded the Order of the Baobab earlier this year, spoke about his involvement with the Hospital from the beginning, and his role in realising the wish of soldiers in World War II to create a living memorial that would serve the young people of South Africa (rather than erecting yet another statue). At the time, each of the young servicemen agreed to give 2 days of their pay, with the amounts varying according to their ranks. A couple of years later, the money was used to build the Hospital.
He urged us, “Write your memoirs. You’re more important than you think you are. When you write down your memoirs, you become part of history.”
I rather like that!
Mr Vyvyen Watson’s daughter, who still volunteers at the Hospital, recalled her frequent visits to the building site of the Hospital. Her brother Peter was four years old when he died, due to an outbreak of diphtheria in Cape Town, and because there was no specialist children’s hospital at the time. Her father donated the bronze statue of Peter Pan, which stands in front of the main entrance to the Hospital, in memory of her brother Peter (here is a picture of the delightful statue).
Professor Paddy Hartley, senior specialist in paediatric oncology, said that everyone involved with the Hospital was driven by the passionate desire to help the children; whenever they encountered any difficulties, their motto was: “Never take no for an answer!” She emphasised that they could not have done it all, if it hadn’t been for the many volunteers and donors and people working for the Children’s Hospital Trust. She added that the Hospital wanted to extend its operations further into the country and beyond across the rest of Africa.
Professor Heinz Rode, Emeritus Professor of Paediatric Surgery, is the leading burns surgeon in the country. Although officially retired since 2007, he is still working at the hospital, teaching and operating, attending conferences overseas, and running an outreach clinic. He quoted from a stirring and beautifully crafted blogpost written by Hilary Alexander, ‘Reflections on a visit to the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital’:
“Think of a place where you find children with cancer, HIV, third degree burns, and a slew of infectious diseases, and you think institutional corridors, dour nurses, drab walls, and air heavy with the exhaustion of anxious families. …
[But] What I found there is a world of hope, of positivity and dedication. …
… despite the pain, the sadness, the uncertainty and agonizing waiting, to me, a visitor, the hospital is not a sad place. The corridors are bright with joy-filled murals that can only make you smile; distracting decor that helps you, momentarily, forget the real reason you’re there. The staff, from security guards to chaplains, volunteers to nurses, doctors to specialists – every person I saw – was smiling… I urge you to support them however you can.” (Have a read through the rest of her inspiring blog post here: http://hilaryalex.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/260-000-children-every-365-days/.)
Nursing sister Dorothy Schulman spoke to us about the Safe Candle Project run by Childsafe. She had initiated this project after the horrific, devastating fires in Joe Slovo settlement in 2005, which had been caused by unattended candles falling over. Safe Candles can be created really simply and inexpensively by filling a large recycled glass jar with dry sand, and sticking in half a candle. The candle flame should not burn higher than the top rim of the jar. If the jar does fall over, then the dry sand will extinguish the flame. She appealed for donations of large recycled glass jars so that they could make more of these and distribute them in the community.
She presented one of these candles to Premier Helen Zille, who promptly lit the candle, took a photo of it with her smartphone, and then uploaded it to Twitter with an accompanying tweet, much to the amusement of everyone in the room. Our Premier has always been very active in the social media, already during her time as Mayor of Cape Town.
These events always leave me wishing that I had a million bucks to donate to the Trust, or even a couple of thousands. But I don’t. I can only say Thank You, Good Work, and Please Continue, by sharing my words and photographs in the great big blogosphere, in the hope that they will somehow make a positive difference.