Hard lives in old leper hospital

Bruce Fraser

The road to Westfort Hospital in Danville, west of Pretoria, is misleading.

Lined with towering, majestic blue gum trees reaching for the clear blue sky, the tranquility dissipates once you drive through a boomed gate and enter what was once the only leper hospital in the country.

Founded in 1897, for almost 100 years the hospital treated patients who suffered from the disease. When the leprosy asylum on Robben Island closed in 1931, Westfort became the only multiracial institution in the country to treat the illness.

Plans a few years ago to turn the 34 hectare-site into a tourist attraction along with casino and hotel fell by the wayside and today the run-down hospital is not home to lepers but more than 1250 families who suffer from impoverishment.

"For the past four years there has been no electricity and for close on a year now no water," said Phillip Williams from the Fellowship Riders In Africa, a Christian motorcycle group that is trying to improve the conditions people live in.

"Most of the people you see here have no income and most of the time no food."

Williams, along with a team of five, are busy putting in place a soup kitchen to help alleviate some of the hardships experienced by the residents.

"We are looking at feeding 400 to 500 people, mostly children, with two meals a day with the generosity of various church groups and individuals who have seen the appalling conditions these people live in."

Because there are no sewerage facilities and no water the risk of disease is always present.

What was a swimming pool in a bygone era is now used as a giant rubbish dump where anything from empty bottles to household leftovers are tossed.

Though the people generally keep their small living quarters spotless, the threat of falling ill lurks menacingly.

Said Williams: "You can have up to nine people living in a small room. Sometimes people even live in the toilets.

"Recently there was an outbreak of diarrhoea and the more serious cases were admitted to nearby Kalafong Hospital.

"Obviously our main concern is that there is no running water and the associated problems."

The racial mix of people living at Westfort is about 60percent black and 40percent white and the one common denominator is unemployment, which is estimated at 90percent.

Wherever you go people are milling around with little or nothing to do. You feel they have given up on life and accepted the bad hand dealt to them.

Getting those of a working age back into the formal sector is Williams' major goal.

"A number of the residents have a variety of skills. We have to reintegrate them back into jobs and eventually society."

lFor a picture gallery and video see www.sowetan.co.za

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