South Africa

‘Great strides’ against HIV in the Free State – but activists still aren’t safe

By Anso Thom 7 February 2014

On Wednesday, Free State Health MEC Dr Benny Malakoane held a briefing with what he termed “the fourth estate”, singing the praises of the media an as important partner to “reach out where we are not able to make a presence (sic)”. But meanwhile, an anti-HIV activist in the province says he fears for his life, suffering bullying and intimidation. By ANSO THOM.

Malakoane’s lengthy speech gave great detail regarding the “highlights and strides made during the past eleven months” with challenges facing his department discussed only at the end of the address.

Despite numerous questions, however, Malakoane did not address in detail the issue of alleged bullying, intimidation and threats against HIV activists in his province.

He reportedly responded acerbically and sarcastically to questions related to developments involving a specific Free State HIV activist known for speaking out about life-threatening drug stock-outs in his province.

Meanwhile, Free State Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) chairperson Sello Mokhalipi says he fears for his life and that of his family after receiving several death threats.

Malakoane’s administration has also since fired Mokhalipi from his job at the Provincial AIDS Council, ostensibly for being absent without approved leave. Mokhalipi, however, claims he submitted the required forms and communicated adequately with his supervisors.

A long-time activist in the province, Mokhalipi was a key player in 2008 and 2009 in exposing a provincial government imposed moratorium on antiretroviral therapy for newly diagnosed patients. At the time, HIV doctors made a conservative estimate that 30 people died daily due to the moratorium.

Mokhalipi was then allegedly threatened by thugs, who pulled up in their car while he was walking on the pavement, and flashed a firearm at him. They then sped off.

Two years later, Mokhalipi led a demonstration by TAC to demand the establishment of a functional provincial AIDS council, a demonstration that embarrassed premier Ace Magashule, but did lead to a PCA being set up.

Mokhalipi fled with his family in early December and went into hiding over Christmas after several disturbing incidents pointing towards a plot to either frame him or murder him. These included a physical attack, the confiscation of his laptop, death threats, attempts to frame him for rape and the intimidation of his daughter.

The sequence of events was set off in late November when the TAC, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Rural Health Advocacy Project and SECTION27 – under the umbrella of the Stop the Stock-outs Project – released a damning report, revealing that the country was experiencing life-threatening stock-outs of anti-retrovirals and anti-TB drugs.

The report also revealed that the Free State was the most hard-hit and TAC provincial co-ordinator Machobane Morake was interviewed by several media outlets once the report had been released.

Days later Morake was scheduled to address the province’s World AIDS Day event in Sasolburg. However, Machobane was manhandled by a group of bodyguards working for the Premier Ace Magashule and Malakoane. Both politicians proceeded to deliver speeches in which they attacked SECTION27 and TAC.

Two days later Mokhalipi, who has been working for the Provincial AIDS Council since 2012, was visited in the office by a group of men identified as bodyguards of the Malakoane. They proceeded to confiscate the laptops of Mokhalipi and other colleagues in the office. Later that day, they returned the computers of all the staff except Mokhalipi, who has not seen his laptop since.

At the time he confronted security personnel and demanded an explanation. They purportedly told him that he was suspected of leaking information to the Stop the Stock-outs Project.

The following week Mokhalipi was contacted by a senior leader in the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC). He had a chilling message. He said he had overheard other activists discussing Mokhalipi, stating that he had to be “silenced”.

The next salvo arrived in the form of a call from an unidentified man who warned Mokhalipi that “as a TAC activist I must stop feeding the bad publicity around the provincial health department”.

He told me my activities were going to have a negative impact on the ANC and that it cannot be tolerated, especially while elections are around the corner. He told me that as the provincial chairperson of the TAC I have the power to put an end to this. He warned me to do as I was told or I would be dealt with severely,” says Mokhalipi, a slight man with long braided hair.

Mokhalipi bundled his terrified family into a car and they fled to another province, where they spent Christmas.

Upon their return on 14 January, a black BMW was spotted near his house in Phahameng Location in Bloemfontein. The driver and passenger approached Mokhalipi’s daughter, quizzing her on where her father lived. They drove her around before dropping her off again.

Another colleague has also since warned Mokhalipi that there was a plan to eliminate him and that his detractors had tried to convince a former girlfriend to falsely accuse him of rape. The colleague also warned him not to eat any food at the office as the group had discussed the possibility of poisoning Mokhalipi.

A TAC activist has also since contacted Mokhalipi and told him she had overheard a conversation at a social gathering where a group of men discussed how the “HIV activist (Mokhalipi) was going to die like a dog”.

The final salvo was on 20 January, when Mokhalipi returned to work and was served with a dismissal letter citing charges of “absent from duty without permission”.

Mokhalipi has now filed a case at the Mangaung police station. This also only happened after he was turned away several times, with police initially refusing to take a statement.

HIs family is understandably terrified and are pressurising him to walk away. However, despite his fear he is determined to soldier on. “Should we keep quiet, we will go back to that Free State that was voiceless. I am sticking to one thing and that is soldiering on. Of course I am human, that is why I am scared, but the struggle cannot be paused because of fears.”

Prodded on this case yesterday, Malakoane reportedly told journalists that he was not in love with Mokhalipi and taunted him to report events to the police.

On 26 January 2014 Vuyiseka Dubula, the General Secretary of TAC, wrote to Malakoane requesting an urgent meeting. The letter is unanswered. This case has been brought to the attention of several important roleplayers including Health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Deputy-President and Chair of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), Kgalema Motlanthe, and all senior leaders in SANAC. However, up to now their silence has been deafening. Time will tell whether their silence will be deadly. DM

* Thom is a writer with SECTION27

Photo by Reuters.

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