Charlotte Maxeke protest caused almost R3m damage, SAHRC inquiry hears

The cost of the overall damage caused during protest action at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital last month was almost R3m.

This was revealed by the hospital's CEO Gladys Bogoshi, who was among those who made submissions on Thursday at the South African Human Rights Commission's (SAHRC) inquiry into events at the hospital on May 31.

Aggrieved staff trashed the hospital and disrupted operations over bonuses the Gauteng health department owed them. They broke the doors of the pharmacy and taps were deliberately opened to flood some sections of the hospital.

Bogoshi said costs could increase as the hospital still had to receive the water bill.

She said patients and staff were intimidated and chased away from the hospital by the protesters.

"I received calls from staff members saying they are hiding in toilets with patients and do not know what to do," Bogoshi told the inquiry.

Disciplinary action

She said medical waste was trashed in the casualty section.

"We were very concerned as there are procedures in disposing medical waste and once it's on the ground it becomes a challenge."

She said the exact number of patients who could not access the hospital due to the strike is still unknown.

During his submission, acting head of the Gauteng health department Mkhululi Lukhele said disciplinary action would be taken against all those who damaged the hospital's facilities.

He admitted that the main cause of the protest action was non-payment of performance management development system incentives for the 2016/17 financial year.

When asked who should be held liable for the damage, Lukhele replied that the commission was in the "best position to decide, hence the inquiry [being established]".

R350m owed in incentives

He added that one of the biggest lessons learnt by the department through the violent protest action was communication.

"Communication is the biggest lesson. Gone are the days where top management are the only people with information.

"There needs to be transparency and efficiency," Lukhele said.

He said the incentives would have cost the department R350m and the department was unable to pay as there were no funds to do so.

"The department at that time had lots of challenges. You would have been aware of the Life Esidimeni [matter]. You would have been aware of the project of ensuring that people are moved from unsafe NGOs to safe places. That process is one of the causes of the delay in payment," Lukhele said.

When National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union provincial deputy secretary Gracia Rikhotso and provincial chairperson Lulamile Sibanda presented their submissions they condemned the protests at the hospital, but told the commission that workers were "provoked by the employer".

Hospital was 'continuously warned'

"We want to make it clear that we do not condone the trashing and damage to property and [when] we heard it was happening we rushed to the hospital to provide support," Rikhotso said.

However, Sibanda said workers were justified in their anger as there were several other issues apart from the bonuses, including safety in the hospital and staff shortages, that they were concerned about.

Rikhotso disputed the submissions of both Lukhele and Bogoshi who said they were not expecting the protest at the hospital, saying they had been "continuously warned".

Sibanda said it was worrisome that in 2018 incentives for 2016/17 were still an issue.

He added that on May 31 they had attempted to engage with workers who were protesting at the hospital but said the SAPS commander who was leading the police on the day had informed them that they had no time to wait for them to engage with their members.

He said the hospital CEO had instructed the police to "do what they do best" which to them as the union meant to shoot.

10 workers injured

"Workers were on Hospital Street when SAPS acted on a command from the CEO to 'do what [they] do best'. We asked SAPS to give us five minutes to disperse the workers ourselves, but they refused. SAPS proceeded to fire rubber bullets at workers," Sibanda said.

He added that the union took responsibility for the patients who were denied access to health care, but said the hospital CEO had not mentioned that 10 workers were also injured by SAPS during the protest.

The police's Major General Collin Hendricks – who spoke on behalf of the Gauteng provincial commissioner – said no ammunition was discharged on the day.

Rikhotso told the inquiry that had the department been transparent with the union about financial constraints, the union would have assisted in managing the situation by engaging with workers, and the protest could have been averted.

Sibanda closed his submission saying the union would conduct educational programmes to educate shop stewards and workers who were not well-informed on appropriate processes "most of the time".

"The union needs to adopt an aggressive educational programme that goes beyond the shop steward to the employer and the members (workers). This is so that members know their rights and responsibilities.

Not the first time

"We must teach members that at times we must exhaust all processes at the bargaining council and use pickets and strikes as the last resort when the employer does not listen."

Sibanda said the department needed to observe the prescripts which regulated the employer and employee relationship.

"In future we will need to make sure that we declare disputes on time and ensure that we do not allow them to stretch out as they did this time," Sibanda said.

Speaking on behalf of the Public Servants Association of South Africa (PSA) Yolanda Ralawe said it was not the first time that union members had problems with performance management development system bonuses.

"It started from 2009, 2010 when PSA took the department to court for non-payments. However, the court judgment and order were ignored because the Gauteng department of health was pleading poverty," Ralawe said.

Ralawe in her submission to the commission distanced PSA members from any of the protests that took place at the hospital.

'No one' should be held responsible

"When it was brought to our attention that there were protests at the hospital, we wrote to our members informing them that PSA was formally distancing itself from the unprotected strike, because we were taking into consideration that the health institution is an essential service to the public so we will not engage in any unprotected action coming from other unions," Ralawe said.

When the commission asked who should be held responsible for the damages caused during the protest Ralawe responded: "no one".

"It is PSA's view that no one should be held responsible for damages because there is a problem in the national health [system], in particular Gauteng. I think management should sit and engage in solving the problem.

"A collective agreement was signed a long time ago but till today the Department of Health is not adhering to the collective agreement plus the policy of the department. Every year we are struggling as organised labour to meet member's demands, so no one should be held responsible, we must just sit down and resolve the problem at hand," Ralawe added.

SAHRC provincial spokesperson Buang Jones said the outcome of the inquiry could be pre-empted, but that the commission hoped it would be able to make a determination on whether human rights were violated or not.

"So far, we are satisfied with the openness and frankness of the participants because we all have the responsibility to ensure health standards are met and we have to protect the rights of patients [and] also those of workers," Jones said.

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