By Nomatter Ndebele
A full bench of the Bloemfontein High Court today reserved judgement in the appeal of the so-called Bophelo House 94. In July 2014 the Bophelo House 94, a group of mostly elderly women, were arrested during a peaceful night vigil outside of the headquarters of the Free State Department of Health (Bophelo House). The women were protesting their dismissal as community healthcare workers (CHWs) earlier in 2014 and problems in the provincial healthcare system. In October 2015 the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court found the Bophelo House 94 guilty of having taken part in a ‘prohibited gathering’.
Advocate Rudolf Mastenbroek, arguing for the Bophelo House 94, told the court that it was not a crime for the CHWs to have attended a gathering for which no notice was given and that the gathering had not been ‘prohibited’. As in previous court appearances, he argued that criminally persecuting people for attending gatherings was an infringement of their fundamental right to protest.
In response, State Advocate Gideon Mashamaite argued that the CHW’s were liable for criminal persecution for attending a night vigil for which no notice was given. He argued that the gathering was prohibited since no notice was given. He further argued that failure to provide notice of demonstrations would prevent law enforcers from doing their job of assessing whether or not a gathering should be prohibited.
The Judges seemed unconvinced by the state’s arguments, asking more than once that the state show how the gathering in question was prohibited. Judge President Mahube Molemela said “How can we criminalize hundreds of people for attending a gathering, because the convener failed to give notice?”
Executive Director of SECTION27 Mark Heywood said that although court proceedings had gone well, there was still a long road to go. “For the arrested CHW’s the struggle is not over,” he said. “They remain dismissed in a province that desperately need CHW’s.”
When court adjourned, the convicted community Health Care Workers erupted in song, singing “Asinavalo, sisebenza kanzima” –(We have no fear, we work hard).
Earlier in the day the Right2Know Campaign released a statement of solidarity with the Bophelo House 94. They said that “it is deeply concerning that the worker’s democratic right to protest was violated in this way. R2K has noted with concern that the right to protest appears to be under threat in South Africa with police becoming more aggressive towards protesters and officials increasingly intolerant.”
The state’s representatives at court declined to comment for this article.
Note: Spotlight is published by the Treatment Action Campaign and SECTION27, both of which are involved in this case.