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THE WAY WE LIVED   8. A day in the life of a Black medical student. Part 2.   [9min read]

Part 2.

Some days, I preferred to take the train for the second leg of my commute.  Peak-hour trains were as crowded as the buses. Naturally, train tickets were sold at separate ticketing booths; the toilets were separate; also platform benches; there were separate underground subways or overhead bridges to cross the lines [just think of the expense involved]; and the White waiting rooms were always at the northern [Cape Town[ end of the station for the two White coaches.

Most of the trains had eight coaches and six coaches were reserved for people of colour.  The cheaper coaches had wooden seats; soft seating in separate coaches was more costly.  This was a form of financial segregation as poor Blacks used the cheap coaches.

By having the Whites in the front coaches, the walk into the city, at route’s end, was a train length less for them. Apartheid was about separation of races, and the buses, the stations and trains ensured that this was a very public manifestation of that mindless philosophy.  It was another red flag to the bull in the inimical system of life in the segregated and flawed country.

Ever-alert police were always on hand to ensure that there were no transgressions across these colour barriers.  I recall being ticketed by a policeman for I had dared to use the White subway to cross the railway line at a station one day.  Instead of dealing with real crime in the city, constable Schietekat [“Shoot-a-cat”] was patrolling the laws of apartheid at a quiet station subway. I often wondered how many transgressors he managed to ticket per day.

The classes at UCT were “mixed” and one could sit where one liked in the lecture theatres.  Students mingled freely, but friendships across the colour line were few and far between.  I had none. My life-long, anti-White antipathy bristled with barely concealed contempt. It did not help that many of the students had done their military training which was compulsory for White South African males after leaving school.

The police and the army were the despised enforcers of apartheid. Many Whites left South Africa because of their call-ups which included regular ongoing service even after their conscripted year. Some went to prison for refusing the military call-up.

Here was one small area where apartheid favoured us. Blacks were spared the call-ups.  I always thought it was because they could never guarantee which way the guns of Blacks would point if they were in the army.  Present-day “Blue-on-Green” attacks in Afghanistan make me think of that situation as it may have applied to South Africa.

We were around twenty-five Black students in the class of over one hundred and twenty. The minority students were only those classified as Coloured or Indian. Indigenous African students were not allowed to attend UCT.  In a country in dire need of professionals, the majority population group only had two universities they could attend in the whole  country.

We used the same libraries and dining facilities on campus, but we could not use the sports facilities and clubs available on campus. The rugby fields had one of the most spectacular views of any sports field in the world.

I would have loved to play rugby here  —->

The big annual rugby clash between the rival English and Afrikaans universities was foreign to me and may as well have been played overseas for all that I cared.  It took me many years to realise that the “Ikeys” were actually UCT students and the “Maties” were at the Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch. Such was my dissociation with my Alma Mater.

When we got to our second year, I went to the Medical School campus, which was a bit lower down the mountain which made the cycling easier.  Of course, we were only allowed to dissect Black bodies in the Anatomy laboratory.  This worked in our favour as most of the black cadavers were skinny, possibly malnourished people.  The White cadavers were of obese people and it was an unpleasant experience to watch our White colleagues scrape away so much body fat to work out the anatomy of the day.  Yes, here was another of those rare moments when, diabolically, apartheid favoured us.

Our third year was our last preclinical year, and we had to attend autopsies on a regular basis a few times a week.  My older brother, seven years earlier, was forced out of the autopsies on White subjects.  In 1967, we were the first group of Black students who could attend postmortems on White bodies, and the sun continued to rise in the east AND set in the west!

The worst diseases, usually poverty-driven, were amongst the Black patients, so we preferred their pathology rather than the White bodies with deaths from diseases of indulgence like heart attacks and strokes.  Sadly, Blacks had more fascinating afflictions like infections, rheumatic heart disease, amoebic liver abscesses, widespread parasitoses, hydatid disease, malnutrition, tuberculosis and a string of other nasties that provided us with excellent medical training.

I recall a young child riddled with round worms.  These fifteen centimetre long creatures normally live in the small intestine.  Occasional nasties manage to go up the bile duct towards the liver [In later years,I co-authored a paper on the ultrasound of a worm in the main bile duct].  This child had died because a few had gone up the bile duct.  The duct became infected [cholangitis], formed liver abscesses and one of the abscesses broke through into a vein, which allowed the worms to pass through to the heart and lungs via the blood stream.  Now that autopsy still haunts me.

Yes, the fruits of poverty were truckloads of diabolical diseases.  It was wonderful for keen medical students, but not so pleasant for the suffering masses with illnesses that thrived on adversity.  Even today I encourage medical students and young doctors to spend some time in an African hospital to really expand on their learning experience as they  would see diseases not seen in the more affluent New Zealander or Australian.

Our final three years were spent doing our clinical work

in the  Black half of Groote Schuur Hospital. —> Once again, apartheid graced us with the best training material in the world.  White students spent most of their time in the Black wards.  We operated in groups of about six students.  I don’t recall a single mixed group.  even our bridge playing sessions were never mixed. It’s still amazing that I got through my last two years when I consider the amount of bridge we played.  Maybe the work hard, play hard ethic started in those final years.

Coloured and Indian nurses could also work in these wards, so it was no surprise that six of our group of twenty-five eventually married nurses, myself included.

On graduation day, I could not understand why some of my Black colleagues stood for the playing of the national anthem.  Most of us remained seated, and so did our family members and friends. This was at one of the most liberal institutions in the country, and it was one small way in which we could show the finger to a system that denied so much to so many.

Of course, the separation of the races continued after we qualified and we could not do our internships in most of the hospitals where we had trained. We went to the older and smaller Somerset Hospital, well away from the best equipment and some of the best teachers and best patient material in the world.  Fortunately, we had a few staunch role models and mentors to show us the way.

Eventually, half of us qualified as specialists. In 1975, I was one of the first to do my specialist training at the eminent Groote Schuur Hospital [photo above]. Many years later, my professor of the day berated me for not thanking him for allowing me to train there.  Maybe I was ungrateful, but he could not understand that I regarded it as my right to be there, not a privilege.

On reflection, many of the daily experiences as a Black university student were character-forming.  For many people, they proved to be character-destructive.  Sadly, there were too many of the latter in a society with a severe tilting of a playing field that favoured a very privileged minority.


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