Hundreds of Free State community healthcare workers and health activists have marched on the Free State health department headquarters, Bophelo House, in Bloemfontein early on Wednesday morning. They are demanding the "immediate dismissal" of Free State Health MEC Benny Malakoane, the reinstatement of recently dismissed community healthcare workers and the release of a "clear and comprehensive turn-around plan, with timelines, that details how the Free State health system is to be fixed".
The march to Bophelo house follows an overnight vigil at a Batho Community Hall in Mangaung. At 11pm on Wednesday night, about 500 activists had arrived at the vigil, but according to Yawa buses from Bethlehem and Kroonstad were still under way with community health workers that would bring the total for the march up to 1 000.
This follows the arrest of 127 activists who held a vigil on front of Bophelo House last week Wednesday for which they did not obtain permission. They were held in custody for 36 hours and will appear in the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court on September 1st for staging a protest for which they had not obtained official permission for.
The group has announced that it now plans a vigil every Wednesday night until the court date. "Our comrades who were arrested have not been scared away," said Anele Yawa, secretary general of the HIV lobby group, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), that organised the protest. "The arrests actually built courage, just like it did when our liberation leaders were arrested during the anti-apartheid struggle. Benny Malakoane will not get us down. We know he had a hand in the arrests."
The TAC was granted permission for this week's protest.
'Collapse of the provincial health system'Later on Wednesday morning, the group will march to the Provincial Aids Council, where it will hand over a memorandum to the council's secretariat calling on it to "speak out publicly about the collapse of the provincial health system" and join them in calling for the resignation of Malakoane.
"The time for denial is over. We cannot play politics while many people in the Free State are going without medicines, while surgeries are being delayed, while wards have no heating, while doctors have to work without gloves," the memorandum reads.
Last week, the Mail & Guardian reported that the Free State health department was no longer considered fit to manage its own budget and that the department's finances had been taken over by the provincial treasury.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi also intervened in the provincial health department last week by sending in a national health department team to assist to "rearrange and realign up to R40-million of the provincial department's budget" to ensure payments to drug companies and to fix and maintain boilers and other equipment at hospitals. The national team will take over the purchasing and maintenance of certain medicines and equipment for the province.
"We are extremely concerned about the state of the Free State health department and realise our involvement will have to be ongoing," Motsoaledi's spokesperson Joe Maila told the M&G.
ICU bed demandsIn June, an investigation by social justice organisation Section27 and the TAC found that the Free State health system was "collapsing with stockouts of more than 200 essential drugs and supplies at the provincial depot, desperate health workers begging for help and stockouts of supplies needed for critical medical investigations such as electrocardiographies".
Two weeks ago, the M&G revealed how Malakoane allegedly ordered doctors at Dihlabeng Hospital in Bethlehem to set up an intensive care unit (ICU) bed for an ANC cadre who, according to national protocols, did not qualify for a bed in the ICU.
Meanwhile, other patients were turned away and at least one of them died. The patient who received an ICU bed had been a secretary of an ANC branch in the region and according to doctors his prognosis was too poor to benefit from a bed in the unit.
Malakoane, however, denied the allegations. "There is no truth in the allegations made by M&G in what was purely emotionally charged and biased reporting. The only witch-hunt is what is being embarked upon by M&G, which seeks to do anything to dent the image of the department," Malakoane's spokerperson, Mondli Mvambi said.
"Our message to Malakoane is that he has to listen to the voices of the majority of the people. His denialism and stubborn mentality does not bring us anywhere," Yawa said. "We tried to engage him in discussions through letters, phone calls and meetings about all these issues. But he has not responded once.
"I hope he realises that we will get tired of asking for permission to protest. If he does not listen soon, we will increase our protests and we will get 5 000, not 1 000 people, together to stage vigils in front of Bophelo House. Let's see where they find the police vans and space in jails to put for 5 000 people. We will scale up this campaign to an international one so that the whole world knows about what we are fighting for."
According to Yawa, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe's office has agreed to meet with the TAC with regards to the Free State's healthcare system. "We are encouraged by that and expect to meet with them in July or August," he said.
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