A group of Free State community health workers alongside HIV lobby group TAC were charged for protesting the poor state of health services in the province.
A group of Free State community health workers alongside HIV lobby group TAC were charged for protesting the poor state of health services in the province.

Eleven of the 129 Free State community
health workers who were arrested in July last year while staging a night vigil
without notifying the authorities in Bloemfontein have decided to accept a
“guilty” plea bargain which will see the charges against them
dropped. 

The remaining 118 will appear in court for
their trial on March 30 2015 on charges of contravening the Regulations of
Gatherings Act 205 of 1993.

The community health workers were arrested
along with members of the HIV lobby group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
Their protest took place in front of the provincial health department’s
headquarters, Bophelo House, on the evening of July 10.

They were protesting against what they
considered “the poor state of health services in the Free State” as well
as the termination of their employment by the province’s health MEC Benny
Malakoane in April 2014.

“The TAC is not bitter that some comrades
decided to take the deal. We understand that some of these people live
extremely far distances and some are single parents who can’t afford to keep
coming to court. The rest of us will soldier on with the case,” the
organisation’s spokesperson Patrick Mdletshe said.

Thursday marked their fourth appearance in
the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court where the workers were offered the same
plea bargain they were given by the National Prosecuting Authority during their
second court appearance on September 1 last year – for the charges to be
dropped on condition they plead guilty.

Another condition for the eleven who took
the deal is that if they are found participating in another “illegal”
gathering their original charges will be reinstated and they will be
prosecuted.

MEC facing corruption charges
The TAC has repeatedly called for
Malakoane’s suspension because the health problems in the province have become
“highly politicised” and “he has refused to engage with the TAC and has
consistently denied the extent of the problems in the province”, the activist
group said in a press statement released on Thursday.

In September last year TAC laid charges
against the MEC after a 
Mail & Guardian story revealed how Malakoane
allegedly ordered doctors at Dihlabeng Hospital in Bethlehem to set up an
intensive care unit (ICU) bed at a cost of R11 000 a night for an ANC cadre who,
according to national protocols regarding his prognosis, did not qualify for
such a bed. Doctors alleged that at least one patient who did qualify for an
ICU bed that night, but was turned away due to the shortage of beds, died.

In a separate matter Malakoane is facing
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 next appearance in the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court is scheduled for
February 13.

Mdletshe said the “sad part” about the
charges against the community health workers and Malakoane was that they were
“wasting time” in court instead of “dealing with the real issues for patients
in the Free State”.