Swaziland budget crisis hits cancer patients

July 10, 2011 - 9:59 AM
Swaziland Cancer

In this photo taken Thursday July 7, 2011, retired police officer Robert Ngongoni Sukati poses outside his house in the village of Mpembekati, Swaziland. Sukati, a 72-year-old diagnosed with leukemia in 2000, has turned to a dubious

MPEMBEKATI, Swaziland (AP) — Swaziland's cash-strapped government stopped paying for Robert Ngongoni Sukati's cancer treatments, so the retired police officer had to turn to a dubious "immune booster" sold by a street hawker.

Hospitals in the tiny impoverished kingdom do not provide chemotherapy or radiation therapy and Swaziland's government announced last month it had run out of money to send its cancer patients to neighboring South Africa.

Sukati, a 72-year-old diagnosed with leukemia in 2000, can't afford the 20,000 emalangeni (about $3,000) a month for chemotherapy in neighboring South Africa. Even the immune booster is straining his monthly pension income of 2,000 emalangeni (about $300).

"I might not say I'm bitter at government," Sukati said, his eyes fixed on the ground, his walking stick in one hand. "But what I know is that I have worked diligently for this country, royalty and government. I have sacrificed for my country."

Sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy faces an economic crisis because of the worldwide recession and a drop in customs revenues. Democracy activists also say the government is not accountable to the people and has stolen and mismanaged funds.

The head of the government's cancer treatment fund, Thabsile Dlamini, did not respond to repeated attempts to contact her for this article.

Sukati's last chemotherapy treatment was June 30. After that, he started buying bottles of Xysilver, a liquid a door-to-door peddler tells him will help fight off infection. He finishes a small bottle priced at 260 emalangeni ($40) in two days.

"This stuff is very expensive for me. I spent all my monthly pension ... buying this stuff," Sukati said.

Nomsa Msibi, president of the Cancer Association of Swaziland, said her organization discourages patients from using concoctions like Xysilver, but fears many patients will turn to it because of the budget crisis.

Msibi said that doctors in Swaziland can only take samples from patients — even the specimens must go to South Africa to determine if there is cancer.

Zanele Nkambule, secretary of the Cancer Association of Swaziland, said patients forced to interrupt radiation or chemotherapy may find their disease is more aggressive when it recurs.

Frail, neatly dressed in a black leather jacket, Sukati still has the bearing of a police officer, though he walks with difficulty and has lost sight in his left eye, conditions related to his cancer.

He retired three years after receiving his leukemia diagnosis. He'd bought a van on credit while he was still working, planning to use it to run a taxi service after retirement. But he was unable to keep up the payments as his medical bills mounted.

His older brother is the chief of his village, near Swaziland's commercial hub of Manzini. Sukati and his wife, Mamame, live in a six-room, tile-roofed house near the chief's residence. The couple have seven children and 10 grand children.

Help from the government and from his family has allowed the father of seven to get by.

But now, he says, "I don't know what to do."

Swaziland is seeking a loan from neighboring South Africa to cope with its financial crisis. Pro-democracy activists are calling on their country's powerful neighbor not to bail out King Mswati III unless he agrees to usher in democracy.

The a pro-democracy movement has gained some ground because of the financial crisis. Activists have criticized Mswati for living lavishly while most Swazis live in poverty. He also is accused of harassing and jailing pro-democracy activists.