An injury to one is an injury to all; victory for one is victory for all.

When Charles Oppelt offered to stand in for a senior player in a rugby match in 2002, he didn’t for one moment think that it would turn out to be a fateful day. He was the replacement hooker for his club Mamre on Saturday March 23, 2002. When the scrum collapsed – as has happened to too many other young enthusiastic rugby players – he suffered a spinal-cord injury and was left paralysed from the neck down.

But Charles was not treated immediately for his injuries; he was transferred between three different hospitals in Cape Town over a period of 15 hours. Some 13 years later, and after a drawn-out court battle with the Western Cape Health Department (DoH), the Constitutional Court ruled in his favour. His lawyers argued that the extent of his injuries could have been prevented if he was treated within four hours of the injury. The judge said that the DoH failed to ensure that all reasonable steps were taken to provide the medical treatment required to treat his injuries. It failed to guard against harm in the form of permanent paralysis.

But for Charles that was not the end of the road. As tragic as it was, this event changed his life in a positive way. Charles gets emotional as he says his life had been put on hold for 13 years. “It was hard to accept my situation, but during rehabilitation I learnt to deal with the accident and be a better person because of it. I am grateful to be alive,” he says.

And what a life he’s living now! He was in grade 10 when he was injured, but returned to school after rehab to complete his matric. He then did an office administration course at the West Coast College. Earlier this year he started training with the Stellenbosch University wheelchair rugby team. He is in the process of obtaining his driver’s licence as he continues on his path to independence.

What an uplifting conclusion to a dismaying story. For Charles, things are looking good again. He has endured the difficulties of disability and positioned himself for greater things later in his young life. His legal victory will doubtlessly benefit many others in years to come – the Constitutional Court has demonstrated that it has a role to play to ensure justice is done. (It was an especially hard-fought battle, as he had won a High Court order in 2012, which was overturned on appeal in the Supreme Court of appeal.) The lawyer in this case summed it up perfectly: “This was a David and Goliath case. We could not accept the High Court ruling, and the Constitutional Court ruled in our favour. Everyone is entitled to adequate and timeous health care.”

It is important to take a stand against any form of injustice. it is important to pick your fight carefully and to time it well. We have witnessed the student uprising against oppressive symbols of the past and the recent #FEES MUST FALL campaign. These are examples of organised and strategic struggles for valid reasons. So if the need ever arises, let us all become vigilant – let’s stand together when we stand up for our rights.

Raven Benny is the chairperson of QASA. He has been a C5, 6 and 7 quadriplegic since 2000. He is married with five children, is mad about wheelchair rugby and represented South Africa in 2003 and 2005. He also plays for Maties. email: rbenny@pgwc.gov.za

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