Former editor of the Daily Dispatch, Phylicia Oppelt, says the Frere Hospital expose was a highlight of her time as head of the East London daily, writes Andile Makholwa.


Oppelt, who has since joined The Sunday Times as the editor of Business Times, was at the helm of the Dispatch when the East London paper uncovered shocking neonatal infant mortality at Frere Hospital in the city last year.

The Frere Hospital expose sparked national debate on the state of our health system, and led to the controversial dismissal of deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who publicly disagreed with her boss Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang by describing the neonatal death rate at Frere Hospital as a national emergency.

The expose also won Dispatch the 2007 Taco Kuiper award for investigative journalism.  

Oppelt says: “The Frere story was certainly a highlight during my time at the Dispatch. But there were many ‘lesser’ stories that did not grab national headlines that I was proud of. Many of those stories dealt with service delivery and the lack of capacity in the Eastern Cape.”

Editing the Dispatch was “the most challenging and enjoyable job I've ever had the privilege to do”, she says.

“Another particularly rewarding part of being editor was working with a young staff who had courage and enthusiasm, who knew that they could achieve anything. I left behind an amazing bunch of people whom I will miss very much”.
Oppelt says the present time is particularly interesting in South African journalism. 

“There are many contesting views and opinion on the role of the media and its independence,” she says.

“I also believe that it is during this time, that we need to stand up and be counted — that we can be good citizens of this country who can play a critical (role) in analysing the political changes that have started and will continue until after the elections”.

Oppelt says she asked Avusa (owners of Daily Dispatch and The Sunday Times) to move her back to Johannesburg “purely for personal reasons”. 

Her former deputy, Andrew Trench, has since been appointed to replace her at the Dispatch. She describes Trench as “an immensely talented journalist” who will continue to grow the paper.

Oppelt joined Business Times in December, and her immediate ambition is “to ensure that the staff on Business Times are equipped and supported to do their jobs as best as they can, being able to push boundaries”.

“At the Dispatch, we largely held government accountable for delivery and good practices; at BT, it will be the corporate world of South Africa,” she says.