Going Government – Pregnancy & Public Hospitals

Fair warning, this is a loooong post. The reason being – when I was pregnant and looking everywhere for info (and found diddly squat) I would have loved to have come across something like this.

I remember how hungry I was for information and first-hand accounts.

Like many young South Africans, having a medical aid scheme is an absolute fantasy. And unless you have R 42 000 (excluding the anaesthesiologist) to fork out for a natural birth at a private hospital, you my friend, are going government!

When I found out the cost of having a baby at a private hospital, I cried.

I cried because, short of selling my baby immediately after birth, there was no way I could afford to have my baby privately and, let’s face it, government hospitals in South Africa have a pretty bad rep.

Once I had accepted my fate and come to terms with the scary fact that I would be delivering my daughter at a government hospital, I did some intense Googling  to try and find out exactly what it is like giving birth at a government hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa.

I found bugger all.

Don’t get me wrong, there is an alarming amount of articles documenting horror story after horror story that women all over the country have been through and a couple of informative articles about the processes and procedures, but very little first-hand accounts.

So, I decided to write about my own experience, from the get-go, in the hopes that some terrified mum-to-be might stumble across this. You are not alone.

Some parts of this might seem scary, but keep reading.

Before We Get Into It

One of the conditions of giving birth at a government hospital is that you have to be receiving your antenatal care through a government institution.

Now I have a truly wonderful GP who looked after me throughout the early stages of my pregnancy, but one day things went wrong.

I didn’t feel ‘right’ and called my doctor, he told me to come in for a quick emergency visit, which I did, and was told I was leaking amniotic fluid and was immediately referred to the nearest government hospital.

Now, even though I knew I would eventually have had to go to a government institution for care, I was still early on in my pregnancy that I had given little thought to where I would receive said care, and so I had no idea what to expect.

First Encounter

Daddydaims’ mum and Rach rushed me to the nearest hospital, Dr Yusuf Dadoo Hospital, with a referral letter from my doctor explaining the situation.

After struggling to find the actual hospital in the hospital premises, I was sent up to the maternity ward.

To cut a long story short, I was left waiting for over an hour (which is nothing, had I known then what waiting time I was in store for!) and halfway being seen to, the nurse who was helping me stopped whatever she was doing and rushed out of the room to go and dance and sing songs of praise in the passage way with the other nurses.

In normal circumstances, I probably would have loved to have witnessed that. But not when I was referred there as an emergency and was halfway-attended to.

So, after 10 minutes of singing, dancing and clapping, the nurse came back.

She hooked me up to this machine that monitors the heartbeat of a baby, told me it needed to read for a full 20 minutes and left. I heard my daughter’s strong and steady heartbeat, and I listened to the rhythmic pounding for about 5 minutes.

And then it stopped.

Naturally, my own heart stopped with it. I waited for a couple of seconds, before calling for help.

And calling for help.

And calling for help.

By the time the nurse returned, 40 minutes after leaving me, I was hysterical. Because my baby’s heart just stopped, I had spent the past 35 minutes thinking I had a dead baby inside of me. Thinking I had lost my daughter.

And then the nurse started canning herself, and explained that the baby hadn’t died, the machine had! As you can probably guess, I didn’t find it half as funny as she did. Once I had calmed down she told me there was nothing wrong and to go home. I did.

Overall, it was just a not-so-nice experience, but probably because I am a total marshmallow. No hard feelings though, I have heard some great things about the hospital and it’s service since then.

Second Encounter

This was by far one of the single worst experiences of my life. Just thinking about it makes my blood boil. But anyhoo, here’s what happened.

After being sent home after the first encounter, I noticed that I was still losing quite a lot of liquid, but since I had been told everything was fine the previous night, I wasn’t too worried.

After all, you are kind of supposed to listen to professionally trained hospital staff, right?

Then the pains started.

Really sore, period-like pains. So, as any scared sh*tless 21 year old pregnant girl would do, I told my mum.

We immediately went back to my GP, told him what happened the previous night and he was shocked about what had gone down and concerned because my  condition has worsened and referred me to the second nearest hospital. A popular Mother and Child hospital called Rahima Moosa or Coronation Hospital.

We arrive and the waiting begins. After 2 hours I am helped by the most lovely sisters who handle the paperwork side of things. They got me signed in, took and tested some urine, noted my BP, weighed me and did all of those standard procedures.

I was treated SO well. While I was waiting to be seen, I texted my mum, who was waiting with my friend and granny outside, ‘Mum, this place is amazing, I am going to give birth here!’ and she was so happy.

I am admitted, a few hours pass and I am seen by a trainee sister. She was cold and distant, but that’s okay – I put it down to a bad day.

When she asked me why I was there, I showed her my doctors referral letter, told her about the liquid and the pains and made the mistake of telling her about the previous night’s experience.

I told her about the machine dying and how scary that was for me, how from the beginning the entire experience was just awful and how freaking happy I was to be there with her, that this hospital seems amazing and the people are lovely.

And she lost it.

I mean full on proper, spit flying, eye’s bulging lost it.

I don’t know what she was saying, as she addressed me in her native tongue, but she was screaming at me. I didn’t even know what I had done wrong, but in any case I profusely apologised if I had offended her somehow.

The head sister then decided to call me out in front of the entire ward and told me I must ‘go back to where I come from’ and how dare I speak about their ‘sister-hospital’ that way and ‘people like you are what is wrong with this country’ and it went on and on like this, with every member of staff adding their two-cents about how disrespectful I am. I decided to keep quiet from then on.

While I was waiting for the doctor to see me, the nurses were literally pointing, laughing and telling the other patients not to act like me. I was humiliated.

Then I noticed something. The ladies who had been admitted after me had already been seen by the doctor. But still, I kept quiet, not wanting to cause any more trouble, still in pain, still losing liquid, still not knowing how my baby was doing.

Eventually, 7 hours after being admitted, I got the balls to ask why everyone had been seen by the doctor but me. I was lucky enough to receive a smirk in response, from – you guessed it – the head sister. I was then told I must leave because there is nothing wrong with me and I will just be wasting the doctors time.

I then picked up my little maternity backpack and tried to leave as instructed. I was screamed at for trying to leave and I followed the wonderful example set by these gems and lost it too. The only difference is, when I lose it, I cry. I am an angry crier.

I asked them why must I stay when they just told me I wasn’t going to be seen and they denied ever saying that.  Through my tears I told the sisters that I had never been treated so badly and that I thought nurses and sisters were supposed to care about their patients.

They laughed me out of there.

I ran out to my gang of girls (also known as my mum, gran, and best friend) who were on their 8th hour of waiting for me and just had a complete breakdown.

I still had no idea what was going on with my baby. I had been humiliated and denied basic healthcare. My mum and friend went in to the ward to try and find out what had happened, let’s just say they were escorted of the premises.

An official complaint has been laid against Ward 6, to no avail.

Honestly, I would rather give birth on the street than set foot in that place again and vowed I would not recommend this place to anyone who would like to be treated like a human being.

A quick Google will prove that what I wrote about above is actually a beautiful, happy story compared to what a scary amount of women have been through at the hands of the nurses there.

If there is any advice I can you share with you, it is to believe what you read about that hellhole.

Third Encounter

The liquid I was losing was increasing and the pains I was having were intensified. I had my mum, my gran and my best friend who were at this point convinced I was going to lose my baby. Call it maternal instincts, or whatever you would like, but I knew something was wrong.

I knew my baby was in danger, so we refused to give up trying to get medical help and headed to a place called Charlotte Maxeke (also known as Joburg Gen) and it turned out, there was something wrong.

I was in premature labour.

And I had been for a while.

They immediately admitted me, but it took 6 hours for them to treat me, because of the amount of woman who needed attention and whose babies were in more danger than mine was.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Charlotte Maxeke, it is an academic hospital and a referral hospital, which basically means that when a hospital (even a private one) doesn’t know what is wrong or how to treat you, they send you to Joburg Gen.

After my 6 hours of waiting was up, I was seen to by two interns and a doctor. I was treated with so much care and respect that I cried (I did an unnatural amount of crying throughout these two days) but I good-cried this time round, because I was treated as what I was – a first time mum-to-be, fearing for the life of her unborn child.

You might sound put off by being attended to by interns, but don’t be. These two guys were so professional, caring and eager to help me. The doctor initially examined me and the baby, but didn’t say anything, he instructed the interns to then examine me and voice what they thought was wrong.

He confirmed their suspicions and asked them their opinion on how to treat me. Before each and every procedure they preformed they informed me of what they were going to do, why they were going to do it, how it would feel when they did it and asked my permission to go ahead. The doctor carefully observed everything they did.

It was incredible.

Their eagerness to learn, their passion for what they were doing and the way they followed protocol was amazing. I can guarantee you they would have forgotten about me before they even reached their next patient, but I will never forget their faces and how safe they made me feel.

I was given a pill to stop the labour and put on a three day bed rest. I was instructed to come in for monthly and then weekly checkups at the clinic there, because I was officially classed as a high risk pregnancy.

Clinic Visits

Those days I spent at the clinic were quite an experience. My first clinic visit, and all to follow, I arrived at around 06:30 am and jumped in the queue that was already filling up.

A couple hours passed and I went into the little room and sat down with the sister, presented all my documents (ID, clinic card, proof of residence, bank statements and a letter of employment) and was told I needed to come on Tuesdays.

I did.

I had the pleasure of meeting some awesome ladies there and learnt a lot about different African cultures. My baby was doing well, growing nicely and I was just happy to be receiving care.

My due date came and went and I was instructed that if the baby didn’t come within the next two weeks to come in and they would induce me, but to still come for my weekly check-ups. I know this is bad, but man was I over being pregnant by that point, I was SO pregnant.

Every time someone saw me they asked how it was possible to be even bigger than I was the last time they saw me. I was eating spicy foods, pineapple, bouncing on a yoga ball, walking up and down the road and Daddydaims was instructed to ‘excite the cervix’, but nothing. It was frustrating, but we knew she would come when she was ready.

‘Baby is Coming’

My weekly check-up arrived, we Ubered there as we did not yet have a car and Daddydaims came with me, thinking we would find out when I was being induced.

Turns out, there was no need to be induced because I was already in labour!

I was immediately admitted in the maternity admissions ward, and 9/10 hours later, sent up to the labour ward. A long story short, you can read my full birth story here, after 29 hours of active labour, my baby’s heart rate dropped. And then mine did.

I had my baby via emergency C-Section. The surgeon, anaesthesiologist and attending nurses were incredible and the whole surgery took 45 minutes. My scar is barely there now.


The aftercare I received was pretty decent.

The sense of community in the maternity ward was astounding. I shared a room with 7 other mums and their little ones. Majority of the ladies there were on their second or third child, with one mum aged 49 on her 14th!

We all helped each other. If someone went to go shower, I would keep an eye on their precious bundle. We would all help the other one out, share our snacks, chat about our lives and it was awesome.

We were all from different walks of life and most of us were separated by a language barrier, but that didn’t matter, kindness is a language that we can all speak.

I must just stress the fact that these people are BUSY. They are so busy that you might not be seen by a certified doctor throughout your entire visit, but the nurses and interns are honestly amazing, also incredibly busy, but they take the time to make sure you are doing okay.

So, overall, I would not be too terrified at the thought of giving birth in a public hospital. If you can handle long wait times and uncomfortable plastic chairs – you will be fine.

You’re welcome to get in touch with me if you want more information or an ear to listen.


Add Yours
  1. 1
    Katharine Smith

    How I wish I you wrote this long ago, I would have felt lots better about having to have my girls at a gvt hosp after reading this!!! ps both my girls were born at joburg gen and they are perfect

    • 2

      Yay! Our girls are hospital twins 😁 I also really wish I had read something like this before having Arabella at Joburg Gen (partly the reason I started this blog actually)

  2. 5
    Lyn Leventhorpe

    Hi Tash, my employee Cecilia is like another daughter to me and I have been shlepping her from pillar to post for her pregnancy care. We have just found out that she has a placenta previa and may have an abruption at any time. She is to be admitted to Charlotte Maxeke for three weeks of bed rest.
    Thank you so much for posting your story! I feel so much better about her care and the birth prospects now. Do you have any advice re what she will need for an extended stay there?
    I love your blog!

    • 6

      Hi Lyn,

      Thank you so much for reading my blog but, more importantly, thank you for caring for Cecilia so wonderfully. I can’t express how happy I am to read that my experience has proven to be helpful to someone else! Yay! In terms of what she should pack, I can’t say with certainty as I heard that public hospitals are pretty strict with bringing items from home for Covid-related reasons (what else? haha)

      My mom is the queen of long term hospital stays and she recommends bringing your own pillow, a charger, plenty of data and airtime, a set of ear phones (for snoring roommates!), a snack stash, a full set of toiletries, comfy pyjamas, and reading material or something to keep you busy while you’re in bed. As I said, I’m not 100% sure what they will and won’t allow Cecilia to bring from home nowadays but maybe with a little creative packing she can make it work.

      Best of luck and LOTS of love to yourself and Cecilia!

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