TAC community healthcare workers arrested in Free State

Over 100 community healthcare members of HIV lobby group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) were arrested during the early hours of Thursday morning by police in Bloemfontein following a night vigil sit-in at Bophelo House, head office of the Free State’s health department.

Mokhalipi told the Mail & Guardian police officers arrived at the scene on Thursday morning and said “they got the order from Health MEC Benny Malakoane and the head of the Free State health department to come and arrest us”.

The vigil started on Wednesday night.

According to TAC Free State chairperson Sello Mokhalipi, the group, mostly elderly women, were taken to Park Road police station and Mangaung Police Station in Bloemfontein where they are being held in waiting cells.

Mokhalipi said he was told the workers were being charged under section 12 of the Constitution for an illegal gathering.

According to Mokhalipi, a TAC Free State leader, Mashobane Morake, was assaulted by police during the arrests and has bruises on his face.

‘Ghost workers’
In April, Malakoane sent a memo to Free State community healthcare workers, ending their contracts and declaring them “ghost workers”. 

“They had been relieved of their duties as community healthcare workers without any notice, and attempts to engage decision makers have been fruitless,” the TAC said in a statement that was released early on Thursday morning.

The TAC said the workers staged the sit-in after months of trying to engage Malakoane and his officials. They previously demanded a meeting with Malakoane following a sit-in at Bophelo House on June 27.

“Earlier written requests have also led to zero. Both [Free State Premier Ace] Magashule and Malakoane have consistently ignored the plight of the community health workers. This latest sit-in signalled the start of a campaign of civil disobedience in the Free State to demand that Malakoane be removed from his position given the desperate state of the health system in the province,” the TAC said.

“Those taking part in the sit-in were exercising their constitutional right to speak out against the failings in and collapse of the Free State health system. The TAC condemns the police for the excessive use of force in arresting the peaceful protesters,” the statement reads.

Deprived patients
The TAC said it sent an urgent request to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe for an urgent meeting and will also be contacting National Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.

Last week, the M&G revealed how Free State public healthcare patients are being deprived from access to HIV medication, doctors and basic services such as water to wash with after having given birth.

According to Free State community health worker Selina Hlabahlaba community health workers’ services are essential to get patients access medication, comply with HIV and TB treatment, as well as to get tested for the conditions: “We are the ones going to the clinics to help them get the drugs or taking it their houses if they’re too sick to go to the clinics. We’re the ones who do the HIV testing and counselling and making sure children get their vaccinations. Now the MEC ignores us. It’s like all the work we’ve done is for nothing,” she said. 

A Free state police and health department spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

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Mia Malan
Mia Malan
Mia Malan is Bhekisisa's editor-in-chief and executive director. 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.

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