The arrests followed the second all night vigil in as many weeks by activists and health workers in front of the Free State Department of Health to protest what TAC has called a “health crisis” in the province.
Following an earlier vigil and subsequent meeting with Free State MEC for Health Benny Malakoane, a promised follow-up meeting with Malakoane never materialised, say the TAC. Yesterday, the AIDS lobby group announced that it would launch a civil disobedience campaign in the province to protest alleged drug stock outs and the rationing of health services due to a financial crisis in the province.
According to TAC Free State Chairperson Sello Mokhalipi, protestors had been chanting peacefully for about five hours before police arrived at the Department of Health’s Bophelo House headquarters.
While police were initially willing to allow the sit-in to continue while they stood by to ensure no vandalism took place, Mokhalipi alleges that an operational commander from the nearby Park Road Police Station arrived later and asked the crowd to disperse.
To avoid contravening laws banning illegal gatherings applying to groups of more than 15 people, Mokhalipi said protestors broke up into smaller groups around Bophelo House.
Police responded by arresting first male then female protestors, according to Mokhalipi.
TAC members in custody without HIV treatment
TAC member Machobane Morake says he was put into a police van and then allegedly dragged out again by a Parks Road Police Station operational commander who Morake says then assaulted him before fellow TAC members intervened.
“He hit me in the face with a fist two times,” said Morake, who spoke to Health-e News while waiting to be charged with participating in an illegal gathering with other male protestors at a jail outside Bloemfontein.
Many protestors are living with HIV and Morake added that none at the jail had their daily HIV treatment with them.
Park Road Police Station Spokesperson Captain Chaka Marope said he was not aware of the alleged assault but that the station would follow up on the allegations. He added that anyone who feels that they have been assaulted by a police officer should feel free to open a case.
He added that he expected arrested protestors to appear in court later today after investigating officers had completed the necessary paperwork.
Mokhalipi also alleges that the order to arrest protestors came from Malakoane and Free Sate Head of Department (HOD) David Motau.
“What worried us is that there was a command that came out that we should be arrested,” he said. “(A police officer) said it came from the MEC and HOD…via the police commissioner.”
Provincial health department spokesman Mondli Mvambi could not be reached for comment at the time of going to press.
Community health workers dismissed
Female protestors like community health worker Selina Hlabahlaba were being held at the Park Road Police State as of early this morning and also expected to be charged, according to Morake.
An HIV testing counsellor for three years, Hlabahlaba said she adores her work but has not been paid her R1500 monthly stipend in months since Malakoane allegedly issued an April directive cancelling community health workers’ contracts. With temperatures dipping to -3 degrees, the single mother of two spent the early hours of the morning in one of the station’s hallways after cells could not accommodate arrested protestors.
TAC has requested an urgent meeting with African National Congress Secretary General Gwede Mantashe to discuss Free State health services. The TAC also plans on contacting Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, according to a statement released early today.
As of June, the Free State’s Bloemfontein medicine depot had run out more than 200 essential drugs and supplies including HIV testing kits, at least six different antiretrovirals, as well as most medication and supplies to help control hypertension and diabetes, according to a joint statement released by public interest group Section27 and the TAC.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the 10 July afternoon edition of The Star newspaper.