The Western Cape Health Department said it was investigating allegations of racism, sexism and discrimination against “black postgraduate students” by Professor Robert Dunn, the head of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Groote Schuur, and Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.
The investigation comes after reports that Dunn referred to postgraduate students in the plastic surgery department at Groote Schuur hospital as the “clinic bitch”, with some having to complain to the university over the use of language.
Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo said an employee has raised her concerns directly with the UCT and the hospital has been advised that an investigating officer has been appointed to investigate the matter.
Mbombo said at the same time, the hospital has also appointed an investigating officer to further investigate the concerns raised.
She said currently she was unable to comment on any specifics until the investigations have been completed.
Provincial Health Department spokesperson Mark van der Heever said the department value its staff and do condemn any form or racism, sexism or discrimination, wherever it finds expression in society and in the province.
Dunn said that in January he joked on an internal roster of orthopaedic trainee role allocations. One of the doctors – a “white male” – was unable to operate due to a wrist bone that would not heal, he said.
“I therefore had to restrict him to outpatient duties. For an orthopaedic surgeon this is terrible, as we live to operate. As a friendly joke I annotated (non-union ‘clinic bitch’) under his name in the same vein we loosely use the term “Life’s a bitch” he said
He said he had not intended any malice and that the term was not infrequently used in his world and, in that context, had no gender inference.
“Realising this may have been misinterpreted, I pro-actively contacted all my staff, explaining the term and my intention.”
He said the doctor who was unable to operate had laughed about it and communicated that no offence was taken.
“Still concerned that I may have inadvertently offended my orthopaedic female staff in this regard, I asked a senior female consultant to discuss the issue with them as a group and was told there was no problem,” he said.
In a statement, the Black Academic Caucus at UCT said it was shocking to read of “black doctors” raising racism allegations.
It was more shocked to learn that the matter was raised with various authorities at the university and the hospital, but that little or no action seemed to have been taken, it said.
It urged the authorities to deal with the issue transparently and fairly.
“Racism seems to be a perennial ghost that is refusing exorcism in the fabric of South African society,.
“We have consistently not only called out overt racial incidents and discrimination within the university and society at large, but also pointed to the subtle forms of racism that are pervasive in hidden assumptions and racist knowledges embedded in how we conduct our affairs at UCT.”
UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the deanery of the faculty was deeply involved in the matter and there was an extensive process to try to resolve the issues.
“We agree that transforming UCT to reflect the South African demographics is essential.
“We also agree that wherever instances of racism or discrimination are identified they must be dealt with through the appropriate channels,” he said.
National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union provincial chairperson Eric Kwelita said the union was “not surprised”.
“We know that UCT is a home of racism,” Kwelita said, adding that it was disappointed with vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
“We thought she would be in the forefront fighting these matters, as we fought for her when she was being victimised during her appointment as a VC,” he said.