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Orr: first S. African state doctor to detail police abuse

Wendy Orr is a young, soft-spoken South African district surgeon who seems quite uncomfortable talking about herself. And yet she has done a remarkable thing.

It was her testimony before a court in Port Elizabeth on Sept. 25, detailing evidence of brutal treatment of detainees by South African police, that brought into effect a court order restraining police in a specified region from assualting detainees.

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It also made her the focus of worldwide attention and an unlikely heroine to some.

Dr. Orr would clearly have preferred some subject other than herself, and her lawyers had advised that she not talk to the press. But they agreed to this interview, provided she did not talk about her testimony. The interview was held in the home of her father, the Rev. Robert Orr, a Presbyterian minister.

The 25-year old doctor talked in bursts, punctuating the rapid flow of words with a slightly nervous, almost self-deprecatory, laugh. Unpretentious, she says that she is embarrassed by the public interest in her.

Many South Africans have long suspected that detainees are tortured but Orr is the first doctor employed by the state to present details and comprehensive prima facie evidence of its existence.

Her 35-page sworn statement was central to the unprecedented decision by the South African Supreme Court to grant an interim order restraining police from assaulting detainees in two prisons and all future detainees in two districts in the eastern Cape, a region where the police have acquired a reputation for brutality.

No, she said, religion was not an important factor in her life; she had gone to church while studying medicine at the University of Cape Town but lately she had begun to question some of the tenets of Christianity.

``But,'' she added hastily, ``I certainly believe in God. I am not an atheist nor an agnostic.''

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Her religious upbringing, if not religion itself, was a major factor in her decision to testify to the Supreme Court for an interim order restraining the police from assaulting detainees. As she observed of her background, ``We were brought up in an atmosphere of deep social concern. Medicine is a caring sort of profession.''

Within months of starting work as a district surgeon in Port Elizabeth, she was plunged into the center of South Africa's increasingly bloody conflict. She was one of the doctors who conducted post mortems on the 20 blacks gunned down by police in the shooting at Langa, near Port Elizabeth, on March 21, 1985.

She worked as a district surgeon in part payment for a three-year state grant which helped her complete medical studies at the University of Cape Town last year. But another consideration influenced her: ``I wanted to get away from a teaching hospital, which offered only experience of an elevated, specialized sort of medicine,'' she said.

She was soon involved in the examination of detainees interned at two Port Elizabeth prisons -- St. Albans and North End -- under the state of emergency which came into operation on July 21. ``An inordinately large proportion of them complained to me that they had been assaulted by the police. They presented symptoms consistent with their complaints, mostly severe multiple weals, bruising, and swelling,'' she testified.

Her immediate superior, Ivor Lang, was found guilty of gross negligence by the South Africa Medical and Dental Council for his treatment -- or lack of it -- of the black leader, Steve Biko, who died in detention in 1977.

Reflecting, in response to a question, on why state doctors responsible for detainees have not spoken out before, Orr said, ``A lot of people in government service can't see themselves coping within private practice. They're afraid if they talk out, they will lose their jobs. It's a terrible indictment of the medical profession but it is the only reason I can think of.'' Her comments were made sadly, not judgmentally.

Describing herself as a politically aware person, Orr stressed that she was not a member of any political organization and had not been while she was a student. ``I was not involved in any political organization,'' she said of her student days. She was, however, a member of a medical student organization which went into townships for blacks and Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) near Cape Town at night to help the underprivileged residents.

One of four children, Orr spent most of her childhood in Pretoria, where the conservative outlook of the country's ruling Afrikaners is dominant. She recalled that she ``was aware that gross injustices were perpetrated. It must have been when I was very young. I grew up aware that some people were treated differently because of the color of their skin. I knew that it was wrong.''

In her final year at school she entered a science competition and won a trip to London. She recollected that, ``when we were in London, I saw that people of different color can live together.'' She added, with a note of exasperation, ``For heaven's sake.''

One of the other winners on the trip -- a Colored student -- went on to study medicine with her at the University of Cape Town. After Orr gave evidence of police assaults on detainees -- all of whom were black or Colored -- her young Colored colleague was one of the first to phone to congratulate her.

She has received dozens of letters of support, including one from more than 70 women doctors and paramedics. It was sent her by a woman who sent a copy to minister of law and order, Louis Le Grange. It read: ``As concerned women we wish to commend Dr. Wendy Orr for her courage and initiative. . . . We ask that the restraining order be extended [from Port Elizabeth] to the whole of the country. . . .''

Since giving evidence, Orr has been forbidden to examine detainees or to conduct post mortems where police are involved. She is now works in homes for the aged and in childrens' homes and institutions for handicapped people.

Orr laughed sceptically as she related receiving a telephone call from the regional director for health telling her that she had not been banned from seeing detainees but that it would be ``unwise'' to continue doing so because of her ``strained relationship'' with the prison authorities.

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