Police officers were watching the patients register at a big hospital for blacks in the South African city of Port Elizabeth when a young man came in with shotgun wounds in his chest and left arm.
A wiry little Indian doctor with sharp eyes, Mandikat Juta, later described here how he leaned across to the admissions clerk and declared: "This is Dr. Brown's gardener. Injured himself with a screwdriver. Admit him to my ward."
Juta, of the Port Elizabeth hospital staff, says he has been smuggling patients into his ward and treating them secretly for two months because the police in eastern Cape Province, where most of South Africa's prolonged racial unrest has been, keep watch at all the region's hospitals to arrest any black person admitted with gunshot wounds.
The mere fact of such a wound, especially from a shotgun, is regarded as evidence that the person was involved in a riotous crowd that clashed with the police, Juta says.
The wounded person is immediately placed under arrest, and an armed guard is posted at his bedside. According to Juta, some patients are handcuffed to the bed.
When the patient is discharged from the hospital, he is taken to a police cell, then to a court to be charged with riotous behavior.
Juta and a white doctor in private practice in Port Elizabeth, Gavin Blackburn, gave this account of police action regarding blacks injured in unrest in the region, where 129 persons have died since March 21, at a meeting of concerned doctors and paramedics held in the Medical School of Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University last week.
The meeting was called by the National Medical and Dental Association of South Africa (Namsa), which broke away from the officially recognized Medical Association of South Africa because of the latter's failure to act against the doctors who treated black consciousness leader Steve Biko before he died in police custody in 1977.
Namsa's eastern Cape branch has protested what it regards as police interference with doctor-patient relationships during the current unrest in the area.
It issued a statement recently accusing the police of intimidating and arresting patients in hospitals, of placing them under arrest in their beds and sometimes confiscating their medication when they were transferred to police cells. It said the police had instructed some private doctors not to treat patients in their offices but to send them to the hospitals, so that they could be arrested there.
Accusing the authorities at the state-run hospitals of being in collusion with the police, the medical body, which has about 650 members countrywide compared with 6,000 in the officially recognized group, said sections of the hospitals where the wounded blacks were treated were closed to the public. Catholic priests had been told they could not go into these sections to administer last rites to dying patients, the statement said.
Namsa said many wounded blacks had gone without treatment because they were afraid to go to the hospitals and were turned away by nervous private doctors. A few had tried to operate on themselves to extract shotgun pellets, resulting in infections. Some patients had died through lack of medical attention.
Asked to comment on the Namsa allegations, a spokesman at police headquarters in Pretoria said: "Since we do not know the parameters of the Kannemeyer Commission's terms of reference, we are unable to comment."
The Kannemeyer Commission is investigating the police shooting of 20 members of a black crowd near the eastern Cape town of Uitenhage March 21, and the South African authorities take the attitude that they should not comment on this incident until the commission has reported.
Judge Donald Kannemeyer, the commission's chairman, said when the hearings started that they would focus only on the massacre itself and not probe general conditions relating to unrest in the region.
Juta said he was one of "maybe three or four" doctors out of a staff of 120 at Port Elizabeth's Livingstone Hospital who had tried to circumvent the police net to treat patients clandestinely. He said they risked their jobs as provincial government employes, adding that "I might even be dismissed for addressing this meeting."
Blackburn said he was one of several private doctors who had set up a rudimentary clinic in a church hall in Uitenhage, where they attended to wounded blacks who were afraid to go to the hospitals.
"We have no sterile facilities. There is no hot water, no X-ray equipment, so we don't know where the bullets are to extract them. There really isn't much we can do except give the patients penicillin injections," Blackburn said.
Juta said he had done a voluntary stint at the church hall and realized it was imperative to get some of the patients to a hospital.
"The only way," he said with mock irony, "was to do something irregular and improper. I admitted them to my ward under a false diagnosis."
As an example, the Indian doctor said, he had admitted one patient whose jaw had been shattered by a bullet as a case of "right facial palsy."
"The police had taken over the first and second floors of the hospital, and I was on the third floor, so they didn't really know what was going on up there," Juta said with a chuckle.
"The main problem was to stop the nurses from talking, and above all to keep the head nurse from finding out."
There had been a nasty moment, Juta said, when one of the police guards tried to date his medical assistant, but he had managed to persuade her to stand him up.
He found it awkward, too, when he had needed to consult medical specialists about these falsely registered cases, and book anesthetists.
"How can you explain to your consultant what you are doing? How much can you depend on your colleagues to go along with your irregular conduct?" Juta asked. He said he sought to treat the patients as quickly as possible and get them out of the hospital before the police learned they were there.
Sometimes specialists insisted that the patients be hospitalized for a week or more, which increased the risk of discovery and of his own dismissal.
Juta said he found the behavior of the police in the wards "unnerving."
"They walk about the hospital in camouflage fatigues carrying sten guns and automatic rifles. They smoke where there are no-smoking signs. They play cards in the wards, and they fingerprint patients pre- and post-operatively."
Still, he said, the situation in his hospital was not as bad as at the Uitenhage hospital, "which is like a military camp. Police trucks move into the Uitenhage hospital compound as often as ambulances."
Blackburn said a senior police officer had threatened to arrest the doctors treating wounded blacks in the church hall: "He told us we were obstructing the course of police activity."
A security police officer had demanded that one badly injured man be handed over to him, but the elderly woman doctor who was treating the patient refused, according to Blackburn.
A black man hit in the eyes with a charge of buckshot had gone to a private doctor in Uitenhage's black township of Kwanobuhle, Blackburn recounted.
The doctor had telephoned for an ambulance, but a security police car had arrived instead to take the man to hospital.
The patient was placed under arrest in the hospital, with two armed police at his bedside.
Although his eyes were bandaged, he was handcuffed to the bed, Blackburn said.