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Community health workers “soldier on” for better health services

Some of the Free State health workers charged for gathering ‘illegally’ after a services protest accept a plea bargain, but the rest will soldier on.

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”.

Amy Green was a health reporter at Bhekisisa from 2013 until 2016.