Frere’s Babies (South Africa)

Daily Dispatch, 2007

About the Investigation

Frere 2

What began with a mother’s complaint — that her baby died of negligence — mushroomed into an appalling exposé of conditions at a local hospital. Three reporters from the Daily Dispatch revealed hundreds of needless neo-natal deaths at Frere Hospital, in Eastern Cape in South Africa. In a series published in 2007, the team revealed that alarming numbers of newborns were dying at the hospital, caused by a litany of abject conditions: negligence, staff shortages, incompetence, equipment shortages, and poor infection control. In one case, the reporters documented a case of a cleaning lady delivering a baby.

The team of journalists worked three months full-time on the investigation, spending nearly two of those months walking the maternity ward with hidden cameras and interviewing medical staff and mothers. The reporters found that, according to the ward’s Abortions and Stillbirth book, 2,000 babies were stillborn at the hospital over a 14-year period.

The Dispatch’s findings were largely corroborated by a subsequent investigation by the national Health Ministry.

For its determined reporting, the team was honored with the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism, South Africa’s top prize for in-depth reporting. The judges described their work as “a model investigation of excellent and powerful journalism.”


Frere Homepage

“Why Frere’s Babies Die” caused outrage and sparked a national debate on the state of the health care system in South Africa, and on neonatal care in particular. Political parties, labor federations, human rights activists and watchdog groups in the province condemned the conditions, forcing provincial officials to meet and discuss how to handle the crisis at the hospital. Dozens of mothers came forward and publicly spoke of their own stories.

The initial response by national officials was not promising. The deputy health minister promptly declared the situation a “national emergency” — and she was forced to resign. The South African President branded the story “false” while his Health Minister called it “lies.” The ministry even published a full page ad to refute the allegations. But outrage was building. “We do not wish to destroy an institution which is vital to our community, but it is our responsibility to place the terrible facts we have discovered in the public domain,” the Dispatch wrote in an editor’s note. “The tragedy taking place at Frere has to end today.”

Top officials soon had a change of heart. Ten days after the story broke, the Health Minister announced a series of sweeping reforms for the hospital, including a ten-fold increase in its maintenance budget, a program to hire extra nurses and doctors (and pay them better), an additional maternity ward, and new equipment that included fetal heart monitors and incubators.

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