By Lotti Rutter and Thuthukile Mbatha
After nine years as a community healthcare worker in the Free State, 60 year-old Ouma Chabangu was dismissed without warning or cause in April 2014. “I used to see 8 patients per day,” Ouma says. “Now I try my best to help where I can, but often I can only watch them suffer.”
As a bridge between clinics and the people they are meant to serve, community healthcare workers like Ouma form the foundation of our public healthcare system. Their role is especially important in a province like the Free State, where medicine stockouts, absent emergency medical services, long waiting times, staff shortages, and severe negligence warn of a dangerously collapsing healthcare system. Here it is especially important that community healthcare workers can continue to care for South Africa’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
However under the leadership of Free State MEC of Health, Dr Benny Malakoane, 3,800 community healthcare workers lost their jobs in the first half of 2014. Instead of receiving the proper recognition and fair pay they deserve, they are now struggling to survive and the people they are meant to serve suffer without access to healthcare. “Since we lost our jobs life has been very hard,” Ouma says. “I am the sole provider for my six children. Although the money we received as community healthcare workers was little I always managed to make the amount work for us.” After the dismissal, for Ouma that also tragically meant watching one of her patients die, “after we had stopped working he did not have anyone to deliver treatment to him. He died.”
Ouma dared to speak out. In July last year, alongside a group of mainly elderly women, Ouma took part in a peaceful night vigil outside Bophelo House, the head office of the Free State Health Department, to protest their dismissal and working conditions as well as the dysfunctional state of the healthcare system in the province. The night vigil was something of a last resort since MEC Malakoane had refused to meet with them to discuss the situation. But while their requests for meetings were ignored, the night vigil would be responded to with an iron fist.
One moment Ouma and her colleagues were singing hymns and praying – the next they were confronted by hardcore public order police. They were arrested on the spot and locked up in cold cells for an unreasonably long 36 hours. In court this July the police struggled to explain their disproportionate response to the community healthcare workers. Absurdly they claimed that Bophelo House is a ‘national key point’ requiring extra police protection. In another telling twist, it emerged in court that the person in charge of the policing unit responsible for the death of the protestor Andries Tatane was part of the team at Bophelo House.
This week the ‘Bophelo House 94’ are back in court. Almost a year after they dared take part in a peaceful night vigil, their Kafkaesque persecution drags on. Technically, they are facing charges of violating the Regulation of Gatherings Act, an apartheid era law of doubtful Constitutionality. Even in terms of this outdated law though we believe that they will be found not guilty, if not in the current trial then on appeal.
Either way, it is hard to see how this drawn out and, by now, very expensive prosecution can be in the public interest. It is much more likely that the community healthcare workers are simply being punished for daring to stand up to MEC Malakoane, who happens to be a close ally of Free State Premier Ace Magashule. These are not people who you accuse of mismanaging the healthcare system or unfairly dismissing workers – especially not if you are poor. Whether intended or not, the dogged persecution of the ‘Bophelo House 94’ sends a message that the Free State government will not stand for any descent, no matter how valid.
For Ouma this was the seventh time she carefully ironed and packed her clothes for court. It is the seventh time she kissed her youngest daughter goodbye and left her elderly and sick mother. It is the seventh time she took four taxis to get to Bloemfontein. It is the seventh time that she knew she wouldn’t receive any income from selling apples and chips (her only source of living since the dismissal). “It is always so painful to leave my mother and youngest daughter, especially because my mother cannot do anything for herself after her stroke,” she worries. “I feel stressed. I do not understand why we are being punished for so long just for fighting for our rights,” says Ouma.
On the one hand Ouma and her colleagues are victims of our increasingly vindictive state. They are victims of a Free State state apparatus that have been hijacked by narrow political interests. On the other hand though, people like Ouma also offer hope to the rest of us since they refuse to yield to the flagrant abuse of power. MEC Malakoane and his cronies may not believe in our Constitution and in the rights enshrined in it, but Ouma and her colleagues do believe in it and are willing to fight for it – and we are committed to supporting them every step of the way.
Rutter is with the Treatment Action Campaign and Mbatha is with SECTION27.