27th JANUARY 2015, BLOEMFONTEIN: 129 community healthcare workers (CHWs) and members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) are set to return to the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court on 29th January in regard to criminal charges following their arrest at a peaceful vigil on 10th July. TAC demands these charges be dropped immediately to put an end to this unjust victimisation.
The South African Police Services (SAPS) arrested the CHWs in the early morning hours of 10th July during a peaceful vigil. The CHWs were protesting the state of the public healthcare system in the Free State, their conditions of employment and the 15th June decision of the MEC for the Free State Department of Health, Benny Malakoane, to effectively terminate their employment without warning. The CHWs were charged with contraventions of the Regulations of Gatherings Act 205 of 1993.
The CHWs have already appeared in the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court three times: on 11th July 2014, 1st September 2014 and 2nd October 2014. For each appearance, the CHWs travelled long distances, hundreds of kilometers for many, to appear in court. The majority of the CHWs are unemployed and have little or no money. Most of them are women with families and many are elderly. The CHWs spent many years receiving little and irregular pay and enduring undignified conditions of employment in order to serve some of South Africa’s poorest, most vulnerable communities. The principle and respect for the law they have demonstrated in spite of the hardship this unjust prosecution creates for them signals their commitment to their communities and cause.
After their last appearance, it was agreed that the matter would be postponed to allow the CHWs to make formal, written representations to the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP), Mr Mxolisi Nxasana. Their representations, made on 11th November 2014, call upon the NDPP to unconditionally withdraw the charges against them. They can be found here.
Despite multiple attempts to follow up with the NDPP, the CHWs have not yet been furnished with a substantive response to their representations. Our information from the office of the NDPP is that there was a delay until recently in receiving the full file from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Bloemfontein but that the file has now been received and the matter is receiving attention.
The Regulation of Gatherings Act is an apartheid-era law that restricts the right entrenched in section 17 of the Constitution of everyone “peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.” The Social Justice Coalition, a partner organization of the TAC, intends to challenge the Constitutionality of the Act and explains that this law:
“makes criminals of people who, like us, were merely exercising their democratic right to protest. … The existence of such a severe limitation will inevitably prevent people from engaging in legitimate forms of protest. … the existence of the law will have a chilling effect on protest because people will be concerned that they will be arrested.”
The CHWs and the TAC make the following calls:
· On the NDPP to unconditionally withdraw the charges and to stop this unjust prosecution;
· On the Free State Department of health to immediately reinstate the CHWs under dignified conditions of employment.
· On the National Department of Health to finalise the long overdue policy on CHWs in order to help prevent unfair dismissles such as those in the Free State.
Over the next several days, we will be profiling some of the CHWs and activists being prosecuted for standing up for our right to peaceful protest. To learn about these brave people, follow us on twitter @TAC, on facebook and our website.
For further comment:
Anele Yawa // TAC General Secretary // 079 328 1215