Former Woodstock Hospital staff to share ‘beautiful memories’

Alice Maregele as a 20-year-old nurse at Woodstock Hospital.

Retired nurse Alice Maregele vividly recalls the sound of the chains as the famous prisoner was led through the kitchen to the wards.

She dared not utter a word of his presence to anyone, not even her spouse or closest friends.

Ms Maregele was already viewed with suspicion by the authorities, given her background in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, and her ability to communicate in the language of those detained on Robben Island.

In fact, when these prisoners were admitted for treatment, she was not even allowed to be alone with them in the same room.

“They could not enter the building through the normal entrances. They had to come through the kitchen and then go to the wards. Nobody could know they were there. It was very sad, but no matter what we felt inside, we had to be professional and not say anything.”

For Ms Maregele and the doctors and nurses of Woodstock Hospital, a whites-only institution before 1969, it was understandably an extraordinary time in history.

Not being able to tell another living soul about the scores of bullet-ridden corpses that passed through the corridors, nor who had been brought in off the boat from Robben Island, played heavily on their conscience, but it was part and parcel of their job.

“Yet for all this, it was the most rewarding period of our lives. The training you received at Woodstock Hospital was the best in the country. And with all that we were exposed to, we became a close-knit family. We enjoyed ourselves. It was a calling for us.”

In 1994, Woodstock Hospital closed its doors, giving way to a number of health clinics on the Mountain Road site.

Doctors and nurses were seconded to other facilities or forced to seek employment elsewhere, and for a long time it was feared that the family would never truly be reunited. But Ms Maregele had other plans.

In recent months, she has been reaching out to former colleagues, rekindling the fires of camaraderie that burnt so brightly despite the oppressive nature of the apartheid regime.

Now, after 22 years, more than 100 former medical staff members will be celebrating their time together at the Woodstock Town Hall on Saturday November 5.

“Unfortunately, a number of staff have died over the years, and many of those who will be attending the reunion are in their eighties now. We feel it is the right time for us to have this event. It’s going to be wonderful seeing everyone again.”

Ms Maregele, who together with cousin Alice Booysen found employment at Vincent Pallotti Hospital after more than two decades at Woodstock Hospital, said while it was “difficult” to keep emotive information close to one’s chest, it was indication that nurses were “different back then”.

“I see nurses today, and I’m not sure they share the same values for confidentiality. I also think we were determined to treat everyone with the same level of respect. We treated everyone the same at Woodstock, whether you were rich, a political prisoner or a hobo living on the street. There were no private hospitals at that time, so everyone had to be treated equally. You weren’t just a number.”

Such was the esteem in which Woodstock Hospital was held that Ms Maregele was frequently asked if there were others like her willing to work at Vincent Pallotti.

Ms Booysen said she had nothing but “beautiful memories” of the hospital.

“When I started, I earned R68 a month. It was very little, but I can honestly say I looked forward to getting to work.”