Gatherings Act of 1993
It’s a difficult thing to get one’s head around. That in 2015, 21 years into this democracy people can still be arrested and prosecuted under an apartheid law. According to the Bill of Rights, everybody has the right to freedom of expression, to assemble, demonstrate and picket. Theoretically, these rights are not reserved for the affluent, they are not reserved for specific causes, you don’t need to apply for them and one should not have to climb mountains to exercise them.
But in the Free State, this is apparently not the case. In the Free State, a group of unarmed elderly women wrapped in blankets, singing and praying at a peaceful night vigil can be arrested. In the Free State, there is no expression, there is no right to assemble, demonstrate or picket. And when these rights are taken away from you, the only place you can gather is in a court of law, as a criminal.
Court 13/Court G
At the first court appearance in 2014, the magistrate said that it was inhumane and undignified to try and cram all a hundred and seventeen accused into the tiny courtroom. A year later, nothing has changed, except that there are now 94. There are people crammed into every conceivable space, spilling out of the doorway into a dingy corridor outside the courtroom. There are people everywhere in the corridor, squashed up against one another trying to get as close as possible to the door, trying to get their day in court. This is the picture of justice. All these people, supposedly equal before the law, are still stuck outside the doors where justice is housed. So near yet so far, only close enough to shout “present” from the corridor.
A few hours later the trial resumes in a bigger courtroom. Here, at least all of the accused have a seat. During the proceedings , the magistrate cautions the defence team not to make the matter at hand a political issue. When court adjourns for lunch the health care workers are fuming. It is impossible to separate this case from politics, they argue. Politics is the reason the MEC of Health, Benny Malakoane, who is facing multiple charges of corruption, still has a job. Politics is the reason 3 800 community health care workers can be fired in the blink of an eye. Politics is the very reason we are in this courtroom.
‘It was him.’
The silence in court is broken when the police officer on the witness stand is asked if he can identify any of the protesters. People are shifting in their seats and murmurs ripple through the court as the officer’ eyes stalk through the rows peering at every face. After a few minutes his eyes linger on a man who is sitting in the middle of the second last row. “This is him,” he says. The man rises from his seat, and looks straight ahead. He is accused number 106, Oupanyana Mohutsioa.
“When I was arrested my children asked me to leave the TAC and this whole community healthcare workers thing. I said to them if I leave, I’m opening a gap in the community. The struggle must continue,” Mohutsioa says during an interview.
Mohutsioa is a 55–year-old Community Health Care worker, has six children and has been unemployed for over a year since the dismissal and arrest of the healthcare workers in the Free State. When Mohutsioa received a call at 3am to say that his comrades had been arrested at a peaceful night vigil, he got on the first available bus and headed straight to town, to protest for their release.
“All we wanted was to talk to the MEC. When the police told us to leave we told them we couldn’t leave until the MEC or someone from the department came to speak to us,” he says.
After hours of singing outside Bophelo House, waiting patiently for someone, anyone, at the Department to come address them, it was the Public Order Police (POP) who arrived instead. The very same POP unit that was called to a public service protest in 2012, that left Andries Tatane dead.
“When I think about my arrest, the fact that the Department of Health doesn’t care about community health care workers or the work we do, hurts me the most,” says Mohutsioa.
Imagine how different it would have been if the MEC had come out of the building and just spoken to them. How can a leader be so far removed from his own people that he cannot step out of his office, just for a few minutes to speak to his people? Regardless of where we are and who we are in this world, at the end of the day we all want to speak and to be heard.
The people that matter
Most of the accused are middle aged women, and at every court appearance they have to travel hundreds of kilometres, leaving their families behind. Despite having done this for the seventh time , their own suffering is the furthest thing from their minds. They hardly ever look worried and are stoic in court, but outside the walls of the courtroom they spring to life -animated, laughing, chatting and dancing. The only time worry creeps into their faces is when they talk about their dismissal. As hard as it is, at least they are in the position to fight for their rights. Neo Paulina Lebatla wasn’t so lucky.
52-year-old Neo Lebatla worked as a community health care worker for 12 years. As a single parent of two children, she relied heavily on the stipend she received at work. For two months, her stipend never came and on June 16, she was fired.
“They told me that I was too old, that I didn’t have a matric, but they used me for 12 years,” she told another health care worker.
Without an income, Neo and her family struggled to survive. 12 years of hard work and nothing to show for it.
In her last days Neo longed for one thing: “I want the MEC Benny Malokane to come and see what he did to me.”
He never came. Neo died in February.
I will never sign
Susan Dipuo Mosehele was not sorry when she was arrested, and she still isn’t. She doesn’t falter for a second when she says, “I’m not here on my own, I am here for those people, because I am the voice of the voiceless.”
Mosehele is fierce, rarely quiet. But when she tells me about Neo, her normally animated features become still. I cannot tell if its sadness or if she is merely sifting through all of the stories of death she has encountered. As things stand, she knows there will be many more.
“I’m worried about the patients that are diabetic, that have high blood pressure, and epilepsy,” she says.
Her growing concerns about the patients and the ailing health care system mean that she is in it for the long haul. Twenty-three of the accused community health care workers have signed a plea bargain, have admitted guilt and no longer have to be part of the trial. This is not an option for Mosehele.
“I will never sign for the death of this province. If I sign that plea bargain, I am signing the death warrant of this province, I will never do that,” she says. Nothing will stop her from seeing this trial through, not even her upcoming wedding preparations. She jokes about the fact that she’s supposed to be getting married soon and has a court case hanging over her head.
“My person knows that this woman of mine, she has many cases,” she says, laughing.
The struggle continues
The trial of the community health care workers is set to resume on September 28, 2015. All remaining ninety-four of the accused will have to travel to Bloemfontein for the eighth time. They will have another encounter with justice and maybe this time it will be better. It has to be, because at the end of the day this case is bigger than ninety-four health care workers alone. It’s about the right to freedom of expression, to assemble, to demonstrate and to picket in South Africa. If we can get it right for these health care workers, we can get it right for the rest of the country, and in the words of accused Mosehele, “We are doing this, bravely.”
Fortunately for them, and the rest of South Africa, bravery flows in abundance among them.
* Article by Nomatter Ndebele, health journalist at SECTION27. Images and filming by Roxanne Joseph, multi-media journalist at SECTION27.