Train bridges health care divide in S. Africa

(CBS News) EASTERN CAPE, South Africa - South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela, turns 94 next Wednesday. Four out of five South Africans now depend on the public health care system he championed but access remains vastly unequal between blacks and whites. But now a very special train is now helping to bridge the gap.

It's called Phelophepa and nine months a year, it cuts through South Africa's countryside delivering low-cost medical care to the rural poor.

Hundreds camp out for days for a place in line. For them its worth every uncomfortable moment to see a doctor.

"From last night I was sleeping here, it's true!" said Thelma Ngongoshe, who needs refills on her diabetes and arthritis medication. She would rather spend the night here to see a doctor on the train, than wait for months be seen at a public hospital.

"We are so glad when we hear it is coming" said Ngongoshe. "You get care and they give you good medicines, that's why I said I must also go see them."

On average, Phelophepa treats 1,500 patients a week. Onke Mazibuko manages the operation which is funded in large part by the national railway.

"The train was given the moniker 'the train of hope' and 'the train of miracles,' said Mazibuko. "And that says it all -- how people feel about the project."

The Phelophepa train made its first journey in 1994, the same year Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president. He placed the right to access health care in the nation's new constitution.

Under apartheid, in rural areas like this one, there was one doctor for every 40,000 black South Africans. Today, the numbers have improved to 1 in 4,000. But that doesn't mean everyone can afford a doctor's care.

Girdwood Badi needs glasses that would cost $140 in town. Here, they are just four. "It's very, very cheap ...something that I can afford to pay," he said.

Affordability that's possible thanks to volunteers. Student doctors live on the train. They travel to parts of their own country they've never seen. "It helps us to minimize that boundary between us and the rural people. We need to understand all the people's problems, even if you don't even encounter those problems yourself," said eye doctor Marga Lyell.

Thelma Ngongoshe finally sees a doctor, who prescribes her the pills she needs. She picks them up at the train's pharmacy. "I'm so happy!" she said, shaking the pill bottle.

This spring, a second train was launched, allowing doctors to reach 100,000 people a year. Phelophepa means "good, clean health" -- and for those who receive its cargo of hope, it's lived up to its name.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.

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