Maverick Citizen

EASTERN CAPE

Eastern Cape health workers chased away by police in riot gear after long wait to see health department head

Eastern Cape health workers chased away by police in riot gear after long wait to see health department head
Community Health workers protest outside the Eastern Cape Department of Health's offices on Friday. (Photo: Mzikazi Nkata)

Police have admitted using riot shields and stun grenades to disperse a group of community health workers on Thursday night as they were sleeping over at the Eastern Cape Department of Health head office in Bhisho waiting to speak to superintendent-general Dr Thobile Mbengashe.

A group of community health workers, mostly women over 50, were chased into the night and one fell and hurt her arm when police used riot shields and stun grenades to disperse them at the Eastern Cape Department of Health head office in Bhisho. They had been sleeping there overnight and wished to speak to superintendent-general Dr Thobile Mbengashe about permanent employment as some had been working on three-month contracts for the department since 1992 when they received R700 and a loaf of bread.

The police used stun grenades to disperse the health workers after they refused to leave the Eastern Cape Department of Health’s Head Office, the Dukumbana Building in Bhisho, on Thursday night after 8pm.

The group said they had an appointment with the Mbengashe. But on Thursday Mbengashe attended the funeral of one of the senior managers in the department, Siphumeze Makitshi, who died of Covid-19 related complications. They were told to return on Friday but they did not have money to leave.

They are frontline health workers who all recently have helped to implement the department’s Covid-19 plan and to screen people for possible infections, but have also worked to find patients who defaulted on HIV and TB medicine, among other duties.

Police spokesperson Captain Khaya Tonjeni said stun grenades were used and the group were “pushed out” of the area using riot shields. He claimed that there were more than 200 people who were “occupying the building illegally”.

He said a senior official engaged with the group and asked them to leave as their gathering was prohibited by the Disaster Management Act.

“Police evacuated out of the building and after that they stood in front of the door singing. A warning to disperse was issued but they refused to comply. The police then used stun grenades and shields to push them out of the area,” he said.

“After completing this objective the police continued with patrols to make sure that all have vacated the buildings. Officers from visible policing were left behind to continue patrolling the area.”

Mzikazi Nkata, from the South Africa Federation of Trade Unions, said a memorandum was sent to the department at the beginning of July to demand the permanent employment of the province’s health workers.

“Since 1992 up until today we had to sign three-months contracts. We get a stipend every month, nothing else. In 1992 we used to get R700 and a loaf of bread. Now we are getting R3,500. But we have no benefits and no pension. We can’t apply for grants because we have a personal number that shows we are working for the Department of Health. We can’t even get an RDP house.

“We visit patients at home every day. We trace patients with MDR-TB (multidrug resistant TB) and HIV. We trace those who default on their medicine. We give treatment to people who are too sick to go to the clinics. When Covid-19 hit us we were there. We do the screening. We collect the data. We do follow-ups for people visiting clinics. We collect sputum for TB-testing and we change wound dressings.

“The women you are seeing here today all have as much experience as most nurses. The only lady has been working on this three-month contract for 21 years. She is from Mdantsane. Even when she dies it will be as a poor woman. It is painful to watch. She doesn’t even have a pension.

“Permanent employment is all that we are calling for. We went to see Mbengashe on July 6. He said he will answer us within seven days. He never did. That was when we decided to go to Bhisho,” she said. “We mobilised everyone in the province. We know what happened in Gauteng. Three weeks ago the health workers there were all signing contracts of permanent employment.

“We said we can’t come back. We came from everywhere in the province even as far as Sterkspruit. We said we will sleep at the building on Thursday night. There were only 51 people. Three of us are men and the rest are women. Most of us are over 50.

“The guy from Labour Relations said come back on Friday. That is the directive that Mbengashe gave. We said you tell Mbengashe that we will stay here. He came back again at five to tell us to leave. We said no. We will stay.

“Next we saw two police vans arrive. They left again. Past 8pm about 10 vans just arrived. They started shooting rubber bullets at us. They were pushing us. People fell. We were just running and trying to hide,” she said.

“Everyone ran for their lives. We didn’t even know where they went. We moved to a nearby garage to find safety. They came at us again. Two vans arrived and chased us away. They said the garage was also the property of the Department of Health. We must go away.

“One of our comrades had a house nearby. She said we must all come sleep there. We are scared but we are going back today. They have shown us that they are not human. We asked Mbengashe to employ us permanently and his answer was bullets.”

Another health worker Nompumelelo Kapu said health workers arrived at the department’s offices from everywhere on Thursday.

“They came from Sterkspruit, from Nelson Mandela Bay, from Makana, from Buffalo City. They came from many places,” she said.

“Past eight on Thursday night the police chased us away. They used tear gas. We ran away. We begged and said we do not have anywhere to go. They told us that they didn’t care. We were just trying to find a place for us to be safe for the night.

“When Mbengashe didn’t come, the official from Labour came and told us Mbengashe was at a funeral. We told them that we will wait until it is over. But after the funeral they didn’t tell us what was going on. He just said we must come back today.

“I do my job as a health worker every day. I look after people with TB and HIV. I do the screening and I follow up on defaulters. I do the Covid-19 screening too but I only have a mask. Some of us are sick now and some have died. The Department of Health did not do anything to help us.”

Anele Yawa from the Treatment Action Campaign said the situation was completely unacceptable.

“It is not acceptable to see state security forces unleash rubber bullets on unarmed and peaceful community health workers fighting for their rights. What happened last night is not different from what happened in Marikana in 2012. Bhisho has a bad reputation in the history of the liberation struggle and human rights, remember in 1993 where the regime of Oupa Gqozo opened fire to unarmed people who were marching, Cyril Ramaphosa and other leaders were there and condemned this barbaric act of Gqozo. We expect the president to act on this,” he said.

Despite several attempts the Eastern Cape Department of Health’s communication director Siyanda Manana could not be reached for comment. MC/DM

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