From union leader to Free State‘s new health MEC: Monyatso Mahlatsi makes big promises

From union leader to Free State‘s new health MEC: Monyatso Mahlatsi makes big promisesFree State MEC for Health Monyatso Viceroy Mahlatsi, seen with Premier Maqueen Letsoha-Mathae, on an oversight visit to Pelonomi Tertiary Hospital in Bloemfontein. (Photo: Free State Government/Twitter)
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A trade unionist who spent years fighting for the rights of workers, the Free State‘s new health MEC Monyatso Mahlatsi now finds himself on the other side of the table where he might well be forced to make decisions that he would once have protested against.

Newly-appointed MEC for Health in the Free State Monyatso Viceroy Mahlatsi has vowed to deliver quality health services while also ensuring the department is attractive to various types of healthcare workers.

“The road is long but we are hitting the ground running,” he told Spotlight.

Mahlatsi was appointed by new Free State Premier Maqueen Letsoha-Mathae on 20 June and sworn in as a member of the executive committee on 23 June by Judge President Cagney Musi at the OR Tambo Building in Bloemfontein.

Immediately after being sworn-in, the entire Cabinet, led by the premier, went on an oversight visit to Pelonomi Tertiary Hospital in Bloemfontein, followed by National District Hospital.

The purpose of the visit, according to a media statement from Letsoha-Mathae’s office, was to assess the state of facilities, to identify prevailing challenges and to ensure that necessary interventions are swiftly implemented to improve healthcare services across the province.

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“We are inseparable as provincial government departments as we have to be integrated in planning and implementation of our plans,” said Mahlatsi. “We shall be depending on the support of others – the provincial and national government as well as development parties and the private sector – to ensure that we deliver the best possible services to our people.”

Mahlatsi was not yet ready to share his observations about the oversight visit with Spotlight, but he says he envisions eventually overseeing a department where all health establishments are housed in decent infrastructure, has working medical equipment, is safe, clean, and stocked with sufficient medicines.

He says his next move is to familiarise himself with key health stakeholders. He plans to meet management officials within his department as well as senior staff at healthcare facilities to ensure that there is a clear plan to support and retain those workers at the coal face of service delivery. This, says Mahlatsi, will help ensure that the department offers quality and affordable healthcare for all.

Monyatso Mahlatsi receives his MEC of Health appointment letter from Premier Maqueen Lethoba-Mathae. (Photo: Refilwe Mochoari/Spotlight)

Mahlatsi will have his work cut out for him. As is the case in South Africa’s other provinces, the Free State Department of health is struggling with shortages of healthcare workers and budgets that have for several years been shrinking in real terms.

More broadly, Mahlatsi says his approach to his new position will be guided by the ANC’s election manifesto. The document reads, if re-elected, the party would “implement the National Health Insurance to reduce the cost of medical care, especially for the poor”. Alongside this, the party states that it would strengthen health infrastructure, train healthcare personnel and create a single electronic health record – all of which are considered necessary for a functional NHI scheme.

Mahlatsi is the tenth Free State health MEC in the past 30 years. Among the nine previous MEC’s, only three completed full five-year terms. Sinorita Ntlabathi served from 1994 to 1999, Ouma Tsopo served from 1999 to 2004 and Sakhiwo Bellot served from 2004 to 2009. Sisi Mabe was MEC from 2009 until 2011 and Fezi Ngubentombi was only an MEC for a year before she died in a car accident in December 2012. Dr Benny Malakoane was then appointed MEC in 2013 and he served until 2016. Butana Kompela served from 2016 to 2018 and Montseng Tsiu served from 2018 to 2023.

Mahlatsi, who takes over from Mathabo Leeto who is now the MEC for Social Development, has been the Provincial Secretary for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) since 2014. He has since resigned from that position.

‘Wage the working-class struggle’

Cosatu spokesperson Zanele Sabela said “as a champion of workers” they are confident that Mahlatsi will continue to “wage the working-class struggle”, particularly as the country prepares to implement NHI.

The Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (Hospersa) in the Free State stressed the plight of community health workers (CHWs). “We need an MEC who will consider the needs of CHWs in the province. Our CHWs do not get the national minimum wage of R4 800 and these are some of the issues we would like him to address,” said the union’s provincial chairperson Peggy Motlokoa.

As a labour unionist, Mahlatsi is no stranger to the health department, said Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa’s Free State secretary Brian Motshabi.

The labour union already has requests for the new MEC. Motshabi said they are calling for improved governance in the department, permanent jobs for contract nurses who assisted the department during the COVID-19 pandemic and urged Mahlatsi to beef up security in health facilities.

“Denosa will continue to engage robustly with the department and represent the interest of our members,” he added.

‘Keeping watch’

Democratic Alliance spokesperson for health in the Free State, David Masoeu, says his party will be keeping watch on Mahlatsi’s performance in the health department.

“The DA is aware of the ANC’s ongoing challenges and will be holding them accountable to ensure that they deliver health services that the people deserve. We will be keeping a close eye on Mahlatsi and we hope that he will be able to do the job,” he said.

uMkhonto Wesizwe Party spokesperson in the Free State Sandile Mabiza didn’t specifically comment on Mahlatsi’s appointment but he said his party will keep the ANC in check.

“We will keep a close eye on them and we will judge them based on the work that they will be doing,” he said.

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