Free State activists, health worker case postponed

Free State activists, health worker case postponedThe Treatment Action Campaign has been calling for the dismissal of Free State Health MEC Benny Malakoane (File photo)

After refusing to plead guilty to charges, health workers and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) activists are expected back at the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court in October following a postponement.

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Protesters march to the Bloemfontein Magistrate's Court ahead of the trial of about 130 community health workers, TAC members arrested in connection with July 2014 protests over poor service delivery in the province. The AIDS lobby also filed formal charges against MEC Benny Malakoane regarding alleged abuses of power
Protesters march to the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court ahead of the trial of about 130 community health workers, TAC members arrested in connection with July 2014 protests over poor service delivery in the province. The AIDS lobby also filed formal charges against MEC Benny Malakoane regarding alleged abuses of power

After gathering earlier to discuss their plea, TAC members and community health workers decided to refuse to sign the admissions in relation to charges of attending an illegal gathering connected to July protests outside the Free State Department of Health’s Bloemfontein headquarters.

These admissions of guilt would have formed part of a proposed settlement made by the Director of Public Prosecutions as a means of Alternate Dispute Resolution, according to a TAC statement. The matter has been postponed until 2 October, and the TAC and health workers continue to seek legal advice on the matter.

Shortly after appearing in court, TAC members proceeded to the Park Road Police Station, where some of the arrested TAC members and community health workers had originally been held following July protests.

There, the TAC formally laid charges against Malakoane in relation to alleged abuses of power.

Despite numerous attempts over recent days to obtain comment from the Free State Department of Health, the department has yet to comment on the allegations or the charges.

Arrests mark a “first” for most[quote float=”right”]”Every single time I am not at home, my children call to ask if I am coming back”

For many of the community health workers, their July arrests mark a first in their lives.

Prior to what she says was a sudden dismissal, Selina Hlabahlaba worked as an HIV testing counselor. She was arrested on 10 July alongside about 130 activists and health workers following what they claim to be a peaceful protest.

“For the first time in my life I was arrested and it did not feel good,” she tells OurHealth. “ I was worried about my family, especially my children.”

But Hlabahlaba says she was not surprised.

“I saw it coming with the attitude that the Department of health directed to us,” she adds. “I will never forget how it happened – we were mishandled, pulled, dragged and verbally abused by our fellow African beings.”

Hlabahlaba’s children live in worry and they live in fear of loosing their mother

“Every single time I am not at home, my children call to ask if I am coming back,” she adds. “When I was in jail, my husband tells me our children did not eat and they did not even play with other children – that is how badly this affected my children.”

She and others are hoping for a speedy conclusion to the court case as well as the reinstatement of community health workers. Their dismissal follows a June memo allegedly sent by Free State Health MEC Benny Malakoane suggesting that community health workers be dismissed from 16 June 2014, according to Hlabahlaba.

Hlabahlaba and others say they hope for a speedy resolution to the case – and their dismissals.

Health care workers eager to get back to work[quote float=”right”]“I will never forget how it happened – we were mishandled, pulled, dragged and verbally abused…”

“This whole case affects our patients at home,” said Hlabahlaba, adding that many community health care workers play crucial parts in helping patients stay on treatment. “Some patients are dead and some HIV patients have defaulted.”

According to a statement released by the department on 31 August, it has begun to hire back some community health workers.

Meanwhile, dismissed community health care worker Maditaba Motshoeneng says she is not buying the department’s excuse that they were not aware that prior community health workers were on its payroll.

“Volunteers were used then rejected,” she says. “Health officials now claim they never knew about us, but this is funny because we gave a feedback report to the Department Of Health each month.”

“They always paid our stipends and they knew about us,” she adds. “We knew something was dodgey when on some months we didn’t get paid.”