The province’s health MEC has condemned the slogans marchers on the department have been chanting, calling them insulting and inappropriate.
Free State health MEC Benny Malakoane’s spokesperson, Mondli Mvambi has condemned activists’ “insulting slogans” and deemed them “inappropriate”.
“The executive council, including the premier [Ace Magashule], has expressed confidence in Malakoane’s plans to fix the Free State health department. We’ve now got help from treasury and also the national health department and we’re going to make sure the provincial depot is stocked well.”
“Down with [Free State health MEC] Benny Malakoane, he’s a corrupt killer! We want him out!” about 500 Free State community health workers and health activists chanted on Thursday morning as they marched and toyi-toyied around the provincial health department headquarters, Bophelo House, in Bloemfontein. Amidst a strong police presence, they referred to Bophelo House as a “slaughter house” and shouted at the health MEC to come out and meet them.
The activists are demanding the “immediate dismissal” of 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”.
Malakoane was arrested in July last year on charges of corruption, relating to crimes allegedly committed while he was the municipal manager at Matjhabeng local municipality in Welkom from 2007 to 2010. His court hearing is scheduled to start in the Welkom Magistrate’s Court in August.
The march to Bophelo House follows an overnight vigil at a Batho Community Hall in Mangaung, where 127 activists who held a vigil for which they did not obtain permission in front of Bophelo House last week Wednesday were arrested. They were held in custody for 36 hours and will appear in the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court on September 1 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’
The group will also 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 demands
In 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,” 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.
According to Mvambi, Magashule is planning to spend Mandela Day (July 18) at Pelonomi Hospital where he will help to clean and “make sure everything works well” to show that the province is committed to fixing its health system.
Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.