'Train of Hope' brings healthcare to South Africa's poor

Despite being the most advanced economy on the continent, South Africa grapples with widespread poverty and high unemployment.

A nurse for Transnet-Phelophepa Healthcare Train points out the window as patients sit in a queue at the Dube Station in Soweto, on June 22, 2021. The Transnet-Phelophepa consists of custom-built trains that deliver primary healthcare to remote areas of South Africa. Picture: Phill Magakoe / AFP

SOWETO - A 19-coach train pulled into the Dube station of South Africa's emblematic Soweto township early in the morning to bring desperately-needed and virtually free medical services to poor residents.

Equipped with instruments and gear for optometry, dentistry, general medicine, psychology and a pharmacy - the Phelophepa clinic-on-rails crisscrosses the country for nine months a year.

Law student Retshepile Mosena, 18, was among the hundreds that thronged the station south of Johannesburg this week.

She has suffered sight problems for two years, but has struggled to save for an eye test and spectacles.

"I was... saving up to buy glasses for myself, but this opportunity came up and I took it," she said waiting on the platform for her lenses to be fitted into a frame.

She paid just R30 for the test and glasses - a fraction of what she would have paid elsewhere.

Despite being the most advanced economy on the continent, South Africa grapples with widespread poverty and high unemployment.

Healthcare is virtually out of reach for the poor, and Phelophepa, which means "good, clean health" in the Tswana and Sotho language, is a godsend.

Run by Transnet, the state-owned logistics operator, it started in 1994 - the year apartheid ended in South Africa - as a modest three-coach optometry service.

"Hundred percent health coverage is still not about to be reached any time soon," in South Africa, said the train's acting manager, Thelma Sateke.

So the mandate is to bring "health service to the people, where it's needed the most," she said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the country has limited its function and reach, it is expected to attend to around 65,000 people this year, said Sateke.

"The train still has a lot to do..., to bring the services to the rural areas (and urban) where services are nonexistent at some point or they are very rare".

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