The laundry room at Pretoria’s Kalafong Hospital looks and smells like a basement laundry in an upmarket hotel.
The floors shine, the smell of fabric softener hangs in the air and industrial-sized machines hum in the background.
In the sorting room, Colonel Nomathemba Mdlalose supervises her team of 10, folding the newly washed hospital linen into piles. They arrive at 6.45am and leave well after dark nearly every day. Once the piles are sorted they will wait for orders from the wards, then pile the sheets, pillowcases and blankets onto trolleys and deliver them around the hospital.
The laundry was not always this clean. When the soldiers from the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) arrived at the hospital last Monday they were greeted by the sight of a filthy, stinking pile of soiled linen, piled in the basement after nearly two weeks of the public service strike.
Infection control regulations in hospitals worldwide dictate that laundry, if not properly managed, can be the breeding ground for disease to spread throughout the hospital.
The women, all soldiers in full uniform, work in determined and disciplined silence, cracking only the occasional joke.
They managed to wash all the dirty linen piled up by the strike in three days last week. Most of the soldiers working in the laundry room are highly skilled professionals with post-graduate degrees. Mdlalose is stationed in the labour relations office at the headquarters of the SAMHS.
She admits she never saw herself washing soiled hospital linen during her soldiering career; but she is upbeat, saying she is enjoying not being desk-bound.
“Anyway, I’m a South African … because I’m with the SANDF (SA National Defence Force) I need to help the community, especially when they need us most,” she says.
Being deployed to a public hospital during strikes isn’t the first time for Captain Rose Malebati.
Her last time was at Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital for the public-sector strikes of 2007.
The soldiers walk quietly down the corridors. In one room, a soldier measures infant formula into a row of feeding bottles. Things are quiet. “We are just trying to do our best to see that the patients are attended to,” says Malebati.
In the adjacent Ward 1, a group of medical students is huddled around a patient’s bed. Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Netangaheni, a doctor and lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s Medical School, explains that some of the students are from “the outside” but others were recruited and are being trained by the military.
This week the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission visited the hospital. The commissioners praised the soldiers for their devotion and patriotism.
“The SANDF is the nation’s backstop ... the ultimate reserve hope for citizens caught up in these dire circumstances,” said interim commission head Bishop Malusi Mpulwana.