Today the 94 Free State community health workers – the #BopheloHouse94 – appear before a full bench on the Bloemfontein High Court to defend their right to protest. The 94 were convicted last year of violations of the Regulation of Gatherings Act after they held a peaceful night vigil outside the health MEC’s office.
The Right2Know Campaign stands in solidarity with the #BopheloHouse94 and their quest not only to defend their right to protest, but to blow the whistle on the Free State’s failing health system.
The vigil by community health workers and TAC members was a response to the ongoing crisis in the provincial healthcare system, including an arbitrary decision to terminate the contracts of community healthcare workers. After many other attempts at engagement failed, members took a conscious decision to resort to civil disobedience in the form of a sit-in at Bophelo House, the head office of the Free State Department of Health.
Instead of addressing the concerns, the authorities responded by arresting the protesters – many of whom were elderly community health workers. TAC leader Macobane Morake was reportedly punched in the face by a police officer who was not wearing a name tag. According to the TAC, police told protesters that they had been sent by Health MEC Benny Malakoane.
It is deeply concerning that the worker’s democratic right to protest was violated in this way.
R2K has noted with concern that the right to protest appears to be under threat in South Africa with police becoming more aggressive towards protesters and officials increasingly intolerant.
The decision to resort to civil disobedience when all avenues fail is a legitimate one. Bophelo House events are part of a wider pattern where protesters are treated like criminals. This has been experienced by many other community organisations across the country. It also highlights the weaknesses and limitations of the Regulation of Gatherings Act – how can a peaceful gathering of elderly citizens be a crime?
We would like to remind the Free State government that the right to organise, protest and speak out is central to all community struggles for social justice. Instead of cracking down on dissent, the authorities should focus on addressing the problems that have forced this protest action.
The Free State health care system is said to be one of the worst in the country under MEC Benny Malakoane’s leadership. The management should focus on fixing the system instead of dismissing workers who are the backbone of the health care system.
Free community health workers!
We have the Right2Protest!
Background to the case, and the parties’ legal papers, can be found here: http://tac.org.za/news/94-community-healthcare-workers-return-court-appeal-conviction