“Train of Hope” brings medical care to the poor in South Africa

A 19-car train pulled into Dube station in South Africa’s emblematic township of Soweto early in the morning to bring urgently needed and practically free medical care to the poor residents.

Equipped with instruments and devices for optometry, dentistry, general medicine, psychology and a pharmacy – the Phelophepa Clinic crosses the country on rails nine months a year.

18-year-old law student Retshepile Mosena was among the hundreds who crowded the train station south of Johannesburg this week.

She has had vision problems for two years, but struggles to save up for an eye test and glasses.

“I … saved up to buy glasses, but the opportunity arose and I took it,” she said and waited on the platform for her glasses to be inserted into a frame.

She only paid 30 rand ($ 2.10) for the test and glasses – a fraction of what she would have paid anywhere else.

Although South Africa is the continent’s most advanced economy, it struggles with widespread poverty and high unemployment.

Health care is virtually inaccessible to the poor, and Phelophepa, which means “good, clean health” in the Tswana and Sotho languages, is a godsend.

Run by Transnet, the state-owned logistics company, it started as a humble three-car optometry service in 1994 – the year apartheid ended in South Africa.

“One hundred percent health insurance is far from being achieved,” said the acting head of the train, Thelma Sateke, in South Africa.

So the mandate is to “bring health care to people where they are most needed,” she said.

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

“The train still has a lot to do … to bring the services to the rural (and urban) areas where services will eventually become non-existent or very rare”.

cts-sn / ach

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