Dr Roger Walsh, chief executive officer of Fort England Psychiatric Hospital in Makhanda. Picture: SUPPLIED
Dr Roger Walsh, chief executive officer of Fort England Psychiatric Hospital in Makhanda. Picture: SUPPLIED

In 2016, as the Life Esidimeni tragedy was unfolding in Gauteng, a crisis of a different sort was playing out in the corridors of Fort England, a psychiatric hospital in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. There, the CEO’s attempts to establish order — reportedly clamping down on absenteeism, abuse of overtime and leave, and staff conducting private business from the premises — set unions on the warpath.

But far from backing Roger Walsh — even after inquiries found his management style to be above board — the provincial health department simply transferred him to a new position to restore order at the hospital. In other words, Walsh was shifted out to placate unions that a judge last week said had acted with "brutal acts of thuggery" — with potentially deleterious effects for patients.

While the action may have had the intended effect, it is deeply concerning that it was considered necessary. It gives impetus to a faction that believes itself beyond the bounds of the law, and sets a dangerous precedent.

That the wellbeing of SA’s most vulnerable seems less important to the authorities than keeping the unions on side speaks, at best, to their indifference; at worst, to gross political expedience.

And of course, the patients of Fort England have now been left at the mercy of employees described as thugs.