Thursday, March 11, 2010

How do you spell bullshit again?

On Sunday Catherine and I were on our way to a friend’s birthday braai. Stopping on Wale Street (on one of the main roads that runs through town), to get flowers, we noticed a group of people gathered on the other side of the street. The bulk of the group were wearing fluorescent green X-vests, the kind worn by the municipal government-employed foot patrol guards of the Central City Improvement District (CCID).

At first we were distracted by the flower purchasing, but then suddenly a young man burst forth from the crowd and began running around the street screaming. Blood covered his face and was streaming from his head. He ran around screaming, then yanked off his tshirt and threw it on the ground. Neither Catherine nor I could understand what he was saying, though it was clear he was in pain and very unhappy.

I asked a young man who the injured man had just spoken to what was going on.  He told me that the guards had hit his friend on the head with a radio. What? A man pushing a baby in a stroller mentioned that he recognized the man as someone who had worked as a car guard in the area for around 5 or 6 years. Two other men in uniforms who appeared to be heading home from work confirmed this. The flower vendor added that he was known in the area for being rough – that if people whose cars he was watching didn’t give him any tip that he would throw rocks at their cars and scream obscenities at them.

We crossed the street and approached the crowd, which by this point had grown larger. There were now roughly 10 fluo-vested guards and a patrol car had just pulled up. The man with the bleeding head was still running around the street screaming. I asked one of the guards what had happened. He told me that the young man had tried to steal the purse of a woman who was walking with her child and a friend (who were as he spoke being piled into the back of a bakkie that soon pulled away). Alerted to the situation, the security guards began to pursue the alleged perp on foot. As he was running away, the guard told me, the young man slipped and hit his head on the curb.

The next few minutes were quite chaotic. The young man eventually returned from running down the street, shirtless and his face absolutely covered in blood. I asked him what happened. He was yelling that he was going to open a case against the card, who he claimed had stabbed him in the head with a hidden knife.

3 people, 3 different stories.

Using my teacher voice I announced to the guards that this man was seriously injured and needed to be taken to the hospital. I asked who would be responsible for taking him to get medical attention. The man closest to me said that the police were on their way and that they would be taking care of the matter. The police? I asked. This man is bleeding from his skull and you are waiting for the police? He said that yes, the [now absent] women wanted to press charges against him for attempted robbery. The police would be the ones to handle this, and then, he assumed, they would take him for medical attention.

While him and I were speaking, one of the guards had found a bottle of water (that looked like it had been around for a while), and began to pour it over the bleeding cut on the top of the man’s head while the man’s friend cleaned the blood off his face with a dirty towel.

This was especially troubling for 3 reasons:

1.    How exactly does one fall and cut the top of one’s head?
2.    The cleanliness of the water was likely non-existent.
3.    Not one of the guards was wearing plastic gloves.

The fact that the man had a cut on the top of his head lends some truth to what the man and his friend were saying – that it had indeed been the guard or more than one guard who had inflicted the injury on him. As they were cleaning the wound, I caught sight of it. It was an open gash, right on the top of his head. To cut himself like that by falling on the ground, as the guard had said he did, the man would have had to fall directly onto some sort of sharp object, directly on the top of his head, which implies that he would have almost been upside down from at least the waist up at the time of his injury. Though I will concede that nothing is impossible, this scenario is very unlikely.

While not much can be said about reason 1, aside from the fact that mobile response units should carry with them some sort of sterile solution for cleaning injuries such as these, the lack of latex gloves worn by the guard does open itself up for discussion.

South Africa is a country with an HIV rate of 18-20%, or approximately 1 in 5 South Africans. Bearing this in mind, it is potentially fatal for people who work with the public – particularly in the capacity that these community security guards do – to not don latex gloves while cleaning this man’s head. Although it is possible that these guards did indeed have access to the gloves but chose not to wear them, I am inclined to believe differently.

Soon two police bakkies pulled up. I poked my head in the first car and asked the officers who would be taking this man to the hospital as his bleeding had slowed but had not stopped. They told me that they would take care of it.

By the time we left, more people had arrived on the scene. We walked back to our car feeling very uneasy about everything that had just gone down and rode in silence for the first little while. I do not know what happened to this man – if he was taken to the hospital, if he had been trying to rob the women, how he sustained the injury on his head, where he was from, how he ended up on the street in the first place – and I couldn’t begin to imagine how he felt during that incident. If he had indeed been a victim of some kind of brutality in behalf of the guards, which I think is quite likely, the frustration he probably experienced must have been overwhelming. In all likelihood, he is a foreigner, in the country illegally, which means he hasn’t hardly a foot to stand on when it comes to his rights being violated.

Catherine, who works for the Department of Health, was especially concerned about this extreme safety hazard posed to the guards (as well as the treatment of the young man), and wrote an email to the Cape Town Central City Improvement District, the municipal government division responsible for the CCID. Their email exchange follows:

From: Catherine White [] 
Sent: 08 March 2010 02:32 PM

On Sunday afternoon (march 7) at 17:00 on Whale Street (by harley's liquor) an altercation ensued between an informal car guard and multiple "safety officers". 
The car guard was not cooperating (one story is he stole a purse, another is he was belligerent towards a person parking their car on the street) but some how he started bleeding from the head. 

I was watching the altercation from across the street at the flower sellers and didn't see the physical incident but the worrying thing is when I went to ask what happened I got varying responses.  The injured man was crying and screaming and running through the streets.  He said he had been hit on the head by one of the security officers radio.  Another person said he was stabbed by a hidden knife.  From where I was standing it looked like he hit his head on the spiked fence (and the blood spatter looks like it was possible).  Another security guard said he tripped and fell and hit his head on the pavement (this is the least likely explanation as there wasn't a blunt force injury or marking on the pavement).  It is a bit worrying when all people were standing around when the incident occurred in front of them but no one could say what actually happened.
I was extremely concerned with how the security guards treated this individual.  I stayed around to watch their behavior to ensure the car guard was treated humanely.  
I was also extremely concerned that NONE of the security guards had latex gloves.  In a country/city with a high rate of HIV no one who works at the coal face with people who regularly get injured/bleed/have open sores should be working WITHOUT barrier protection.  This is the first principle of first aid. 

In this particular incident the security guards poured water from a coke bottle over the guys wound (unsanitary) and cleaned the blood up (risk of transmission of many diseases especially HIV).

I was told he would be taken to New Somerset Hospital for care however I doubt this actually happened.  
Moreover, I don't blame the car guard for not wanting to go.  He was accosted by the security guards, was not helped, people just stood around and man handled him (again he wasn't cooperative but to be honest I wouldn't have been either if I was treated the way they treated him) and then he was supposed to trust these same people to put him in a car and take him to the hospital?  I wouldn't have gone.  I wouldn't have trusted the security guards.

Anyway, my two incents being reported are:

1.  The treatment of this man

2.  The lack of safety equipment for the security guards. 



Catherine White

M&E Coordinator: HIV Treatment Programme

Western Cape Department of Health

Sent: Tuesday, March 09, 2010 9:10 AM
To: 'Catherine White'

Good day Catherine,
Thanks for your email. I am copying in our security manager to look into the matter.

Kindest Regards,

On 09/03/2010 at 09:37:

Hi Catherine
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The CCID does not condone violence in any form and will treat this concern in a serious light.
The report is being investigated and the outcome of which will be reported to you.


On 11/03/2010 at 14:18

Hi Catherine

I tried to call but you were unavailable

The incident was actually an attempted robbery where the suspect attempted to rob 3 ladies

The CCID was alerted to the incident and attempted to arrest the suspect. He tried to flee and in the attempt to capture him, he fell to the ground and sustained injuries to his head.

The suspect refused medical help and was formally arrested by SAPS as all 3 ladies wanted to press charges against him.

The second part of the complaint pertaining to the rendering of medical services without gloves was also addressed with the team concerned. They were informed of the dangers to personal health and also the breach in the companies standing instructions. All officers received verbal warnings on this account.

Should you have any further queries do not hesitate to contact me



So how do you spell bullshit again?

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