YESTERDAY I had a chat with our helper about the recent deaths of six babies in a single day at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital.

YESTERDAY I had a chat with our helper about the recent deaths of six babies in a single day at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital.

She then told me that she was scared of going to public hospitals "because of the mistakes they make" when it came to patients.

In 2003, after being admitted several times at private and public hospitals, my mother died at Groothoek Hospital.

When I informed a friend about her death he said: "Why did you take your mother to that hospital? They (public hospitals) have become places where people are sent to die."

A year later my father died at Lebowakgomo Hospital. Once again someone asked me why I took my father to shwelateng (the place of death).

These incidents could possibly be dismissed as being anecdotal and mere generalisations.

But for the families of the six children they will strike home as the reality they are faced with.

On Monday Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi confirmed that the milk bottles used to feed the babies had been contaminated.

He went on to apologise to the nation and families of the dead babies, conceding that there was a "lapse of infection control".

Essentially what Motsoaledi has said was that the babies died because someone made the mistake of ignoring basic health safety measures like sterilising the bottles used to feed the babies.

My helper's fear of mistakes being committed in public hospitals was confirmed.

I had some interaction with Groothoek Hospital in the early 1980s as an employee and a patient. My experience was that the hospital was operated like a tight ship - with patients receiving quality care.

Ironically, the hospital was managed mainly by racist managers who brooked no dissension from the majority black nursing staff.

This is a hospital where a young white doctor, unhappy with the assistance he was receiving from some nurses, could brazenly say:

"Ek saal julle almal donder want julle mense werk soos bobbejaane." (I will beat you up because you people work like baboons).

I have had an interlude with one of the senior white administrators who thrived on putting the fear of God in his black subordinates. He even called himself "die duiwel" (the devil).

One day I answered a phone that was ringing in our small office at the outpatient department.

"Wie praat nou (Who is speaking)," went the voice.

"Ido Lekota," I responded.

"Weet jy wie praat (Do you know who is speaking)?" the voice asked.

"No sir," I responded.

"Dis die duiwel wat praat (It's the devil speaking)," the voice said.

"How can I help you Mr Devil," I asked.

Suddenly the line went dead. A few minutes later the man calling himself the devil stormed into our office and enquired who had just answered the phone. Everyone pointed at me.

When I saw this red-faced blob of fat advancing towards me, my adrenaline kicked in and I jumped over my desk out of the nearest window. I went AWOL until I was assured by my superior that my sins had been forgiven and I will not be called to the devil's lair to account.

Fast-forward post-1994. The management at Groothoek Hospital and other public hospitals like Charlotte Maxeke have changed. Even the style of management has become more democratic.

Sadly it is under these conditions that such mistakes as the death of the six children happened.

Motsoaledi confirmed that traces of the deadly bacteria klebsiella were found in the babies feeding bottles. Five years ago the same bacteria killed 22 children at Mahatma Gandhi Hospital in Durban. Once again there was a "lapse in infection control" leading to the children's death.

A "contrite" then health minister, the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, vowed that systems would be put in place to ensure that such fatal lapses never happen again.

Seemingly we have not learned much from that incident.