Pollsmoor whistle-blower gets his job back

The Cape Town Labour Court has ordered that whistle-blowing prison doctor Paul Theron get his job in Pollsmoor back.

The ruling, handed down on Friday, is an interim measure pending the hearing of a full challenge of unfair labour practice.

“I’m relieved, I’m pleased,” Theron said after the ruling by acting Judge Hermann Nieuwoudt. “I realise it’s going to be a difficult job going back directly into the prison, but that’s what I intend doing on Monday morning.”

He was suspended by his employer, the Western Cape department of health, in July this year, after telling the Inspecting Judge of Prisons and a parliamentary committee about what he said was an acute healthcare crisis at Pollsmoor, including chronic understaffing and lack of disease control.

Theron successfully challenged the suspension, but when he returned to work at Pollsmoor’s Medium A in September, he was told he was being transferred to a community health centre on the Cape Flats.

He challenged that with the application decided on Friday, citing both Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour and Western Cape health minister Pierre Uys as respondents.

Alison Tilley, head of the Open Democracy Advice Centre, which is backing Theron, said papers have already been filed for the next step, an unfair labour-practice hearing in the health-sector bargaining council.

That will revolve around whether Theron did blow the whistle on prison conditions, and if he did, whether he did so under circumstances that gave him protection under South Africa’s whistle-blowing law.

She stressed he will be going back to Pollsmoor as a doctor, not as a campaigner bent on “cleaning up” South Africa’s prisons.

Theron said he believes conditions have improved substantially at Pollsmoor since the middle of the year when he spoke out, though he has not personally had much opportunity to check on that. “If that’s the only gain from the whole process, then at least it’s a gain,” he said.

Theron has been a medical practitioner at Pollsmoor for 10 years, and a district surgeon for 22.

Balfour and Uys were ordered to pay the costs of Theron’s application, including the cost of two counsel. Nieuwoudt said he would give reasons for his decision later.

Theron’s legal team had argued that it was clear that the main reason for Theron’s removal from Pollsmoor was that he was a whistle-blower.

A whistle-blower’s right to remain in employment had to be protected “even where powerful interests seek to silence the whistleblower and to punish him through abuse of state resources”.

Theron faces a R500 000 defamation suit by Balfour over statements related to the suspension of one of his fellow Pollsmoor health workers.—Sapa

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