31st MARCH 2015, BLOEMFONTEIN – The National Prosecuting Authority this week opted to pursue its decision to prosecute 117 community health care workers (CHWs) and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) members in the Free State who were involved in a peaceful night vigil on July 10 2014.
The peaceful night vigil was a desperate last resort to call for their jobs back and to protest the dysfunction in the province’s healthcare system. However, instead of receiving a reasonable response from the authorities, the group were bundled into the back of police vans and locked up for the night.
Earlier this year, the Director of Public Prosecutions turned down legal representations made by SECTION27 and Webbers Attorneys, who act for the CHWs, requesting that the archaic and politically motivated charges be dropped.
Twenty-four hours before yesterday’s court proceedings started Seipati Tau (48) gathered her blanket, a small overnight bag and kissed her family good-bye, boarding a taxi from Steynsrus to Bloemfontein for a four hour journey. Once in Bloemfontein she met up with her fellow CHWs for an all-night vigil.
The group, mostly elderly women and members of the TAC were gathering in Bloemfontein in preparation for the court case.
Unfortunately, the State once again revealed their contempt for the 117 accused by not placing the matter on the court roll and scheduling a courtroom unable to accommodate the group. They also made them wait for hours before proceedings eventually started at 2pm.
By then the 117 were packed like sardines into a small, cramped and unventilated courtroom. People stood in the aisles, sat on top of each other and one CHW had a fit and collapsed as the exhaustion and emotion took its toll. The court adjourned briefly as an ambulance was called.
“I am ready to proceed (with the case), but my hands are cut off. I am desperate. There are no court officials and I am frustrated,” Magistrate Paula Barry told the court, complaining that there was also no stenographer. She expressed her frustration that the prosecutor had double-booked himself with a matter in the high court and only arrived to attend to this matter at 12.00pm.
“Treating people like sardines is really not right to me,” she said. “This is not a humane or dignified way to conduct a trial, they are entitled to be reasonably comfortable, seated and to engage productively in the trial”, she said.
In his objection to the main charge that the 117 had participated in an “illegal gathering” violating section 12(e) of the Regulation of Gatherings Act, Counsel for the accused Adocate Rudolf Mastenbroek pointed out in court that “they (the State) are with respect living 25 years in the past. In the new South Africa there is no illegal gathering. We parted ways with that. It is where apartheid ends and democracy begins.” He added that the accused have warned the prosecution that they will consider a civil case for malicious prosecution.
New dates set for trial
After deliberations the matter was postponed until July 6. The Magistrate ordered that the Prosecutor find a venue that is dignified and allows the 117 accused to be seated and hear the proceedings.
The trial will cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of Rands, aside from the wasted time of police witnesses, the ‘investigation’ and the time of the public prosecutor, the magistrate and court officials in the Free State.
The TAC believes that this is fundamentally a politically-motivated trial. It is irrational for the prosecution to continue with this case. We believe that public funds are being wasted in an attempt to settle political scores. We also stress that the accused have attended court four times since being released from jail, each time coming at great personal sacrifice from all over the Free State., They have shown great respect for the legal process despite the injustice done to them.
TAC’s appeal: Step up the campaign of solidarity
The community health workers and TAC refuse to be intimidated. Although the CHWs are tired and hungry after eight months without their jobs, their campaign will continue. TAC is discussing setting up a solidarity fund to provide some relief.
We will continue our fight for justice and we will win.
1. We call on our international partners to support us in this campaign as we stand up to the bullying by the Free State government, especially when we return to court on July 6.
2. If the charges against all 117 are not dropped before June 16 2015, we will call on TAC’s international partners and allies to hold demonstrations outside South African missions and embassies in their countries.
3. We call on our partners and all people concerned with the health of our democracy to join us in their thousands as we march on the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court on July 6. It is important to show that we will not accept this abuse of state power and the ongoing victimization of committed community healthcare workers. This is not the future we struggled for.
4. We call on the media to diarize July 6 and to cover the court proceedings – and if possible to broadcast proceedings live from the court.
On Monday afternoon an exhausted Seipati boarded the taxi again, tackling the more than four-hour trip home. A CHW for the last 10 years Seipati has always wanted to be a nurse but had no money to further her studies.
“I then decided to help children whose parents died of HIV/AIDS. I helped the kids with their homework and to bath their sick parents. We received sporadic payments; sometimes we went for months without pay. I am now in a lot of debt, furniture shops are even threatening to come take back the furniture”.
For further comment please contact:
Mary-Jane Matsolo 0798022686