The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), has accused the Free State’s health MEC, Benny Malakoane, of intimidating its members and threatening their lives.
The HIV lobby group’s Free State chairperson, Sello Mokhalipi, claims he was followed for half an hour by a black BMW that was waiting outside the Rock community radio station in Welkom last Wednesday, where Mokhalipi had been interviewed about the province’s “dire health situation”, according to Mark Heywood from the social justice organisation Section27.
Heywood said the car followed Mokhalipi and two of his colleagues for several kilometres, until they finally managed to “lose it” on a road to Bloemfontein.
Two weeks before that, on the night of July 12, three vehicles, which “came from nowhere, surrounded a car with Mokhalipi and three TAC members inside, effectively boxing it in,” Heywood said.
They had been driving back to Bloemfontein from Botshebelo after a community mobilisation when the cars tried to force them off the road. The cars finally had to give way to oncoming traffic, which allowed Mokhalipi’s car to escape.
This incident happened three days after 127 TAC members and health activists were arrested in Bloemfontein after a night-long protest, in which Mokhalipi was involved, in front of the Free State health department’s headquarters.
Earlier this year, the Mail & Guardian reported that Mokhalipi received many anonymous death threats in December last year.
Since last year, the TAC has been waging a campaign against the Free State health department in an attempt to expose what the group refers to as a “collapsing system”.
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In July, the M&G reported that the department was placed under the administration of the provincial treasury to “deal with the nonpayment of critical medicines and medical suppliers in the province and poor procurement of goods and services”, according to the chief director of provincial budget analysis in the national treasury, Edgar Sishi.
“The only people who have an interest in intimidating TAC leaders in the Free State are the people who are the subjects of the TAC’s campaigns,” Heywood said. “This is nobody other than the provincial MEC and health department, because they are implicated in corruption and the mismanagement in the health system.
“While there isn’t direct evidence for the MEC and his department’s involvement in the intimidation, there is no doubt that these incidents happened and weren’t a figment of the TAC’s imagination.”
But the department’s spokesperson, Mondli Mvambi, denied that it was in any way involved in “putting Mr Mokhalipi’s life in danger”. “As a matter of fact, the department has no relations with Mr Mokhalipi,” Mvambi said.
He said the MEC’s office was not aware of the incidents “alleged in the name of Mr Mokhalipi … We have no intensions of putting his life in danger … and advise that any South African faced with fears of any danger to their lives should do the honourable thing by reporting the matter to the police.”
Mokhalipi said he reported the first incident to the police in January, “without any luck”.
“Every single one of my follow-up attempts has been ignored. They refuse to let me meet with the officer who is handling the case and say he will call me back, but he never does. That’s why I haven’t even bothered to file reports on the last two attempts,” he said.
According to the TAC, police told the community health workers who were arrested in July that they were “sent by the health MEC”.
Mokhalipi’s Welkom radio interview happened on the night before Malakoane appeared in the Welkom regional court on corruption charges relating to transactions that took place between October 2007 and June 2008 while he was the municipal manager of the Matjhabeng local municipality. Malakoane and seven others, including the Free State’s arts, culture and recreation MEC, Nokwanje Leeto, who was the municipality’s executive mayor at the time, are accused of taking kickbacks worth R13-million for irregularly awarded contracts.
Meanwhile, Mokhalipi is being accused of corruption himself. The Free State provincial Aids council, which employed Mokhalipi until December, sent a letter to the TAC’s general secretary, Anele Yawa, in which it alleges that Mokhalipi stole R100?000 linked to joint training by the TAC and the council. It claims the money was meant for transport.
“We take these allegations very seriously and, unlike Malakoane’s corruption case, which is moving at a snail’s pace, if the TAC smells corruption, it investigates and acts immediately,” Heywood said.
“After a preliminary investigation, we have got evidence that Mokhalipi was not corrupt, but we will have a thorough investigation completed by the end of August.
“However, I suspect that there is something deeper going on, such as a smear campaign against Mokhalipi in an effort to discredit the TAC’s campaign against the department.”
This week, the TAC launched a renewed month-long campaign “to highlight different aspects of the Free State’s health crisis”.
According to Heywood, members will hold weekly night vigils outside the offices of the MEC, “with or without permission”.
The campaign will culminate on September 1, when the arrested community healthworkers are due to appear in the Bloemfontein regional court.
Malakoane’s corruption case has been transferred to the same court and will begin on August 27.
According to Heywood, Malakoane should step down. “The firing of Benny Malakoane is non-negotiable. He is not suitable to preside over the health system in this province.”
Mia Malan is Bhekisisa's editor-in-chief and executive director. Under her leadership, Bhekisisa’s online readership increased 30 fold and its donor funding eightfold between 2013 and 2019. Malan has won more than 20 African journalism awards for her work and is a former fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.