The ANC says the removal of the Free State’s controversial health MEC, Benny Malakoane, from his position on Monday has “bogger-all” to do with health activists’ two-year public campaign to get him fired.

Malakoane has been moved to economic and small business development, tourism and environmental affairs in a Cabinet reshuffle — a position he has previously occupied. He faces several serious charges of fraud and corruption in a court case that has been postponed numerous times.

The charges relate to him and others allegedly receiving kickbacks worth R13-million for irregularly awarded contracts in Matjhabeng local municipality in 2007/2008 when Malakoane was municipal manager there.

The health lobby group, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), has been advocating for his removal through its #firebenny campaign, claiming that the provincial health system has “limped from crisis to crisis with people who rely on it left traumatised by death and pain” under Malakoane’s reign.

In a press release on Tuesday, the TAC said it “acknowledges all the courageous whistle-blowers who have spoken out about the crisis in the public healthcare system in the province in recent years” for the role they played in getting Malakoane removed from his position.

But ANC Free State spokesperson Thabo Meeko said the TAC’s statement was “definitely not based on the truth” and had “nothing, bogger-all” to do with the activists’ campaign.

“This was a political decision about the ANC’s senior leadership. Benny Malakoane knows the health department inside out and did an excellent job. We think he must do the same and assist us in the development of economic change for radical transformation.”

Meeko said when Malakoane previously occupied this position the ANC “observed tangible change”.

The TAC laid additional corruption charges against Malakoane in 2015 after a Bhekisisa story published in the Mail & Guardian in 2013 in which doctors in the Eastern Free State’s Dihlabeng Regional Hospital and Pekholong Hospital claimed Malakoane intervened to allocate one of the only remaining intensive care unit beds to a patient with ANC connections and not to an “ordinary” patient with a better prognosis. Both patients died.

In 2015, Bhekisisa further exposed the dysfunction at Dihlabeng, when doctors begged Health Minister Aaron Motoslaedi to intervene because their letters and calls to Malakoane went unanswered. At the time, the hospital was functioning with less than a quarter of the required number of doctors.

Bhekisisa also reported on the plight of the Free State’s community health workers, who claimed Malakoane dismissed them unfairly.

According to the TAC, a quarter of the province’s doctors left the province in 2015, “largely due to Malakoane’s mismanagement of the health system and victimisation of those who spoke out against it”.

This month, the TAC exposed unlawful stem cell trials being conducted in the province, allegedly with the full knowledge of Malakoane. “Malakoane’s role in the stem cell scandal … must be investigated and if any wrong-doing on his part is found by the Medicines Control Council or the department of health he must be charged,” the TAC said in its press release.

The Free State’s new MEC for Health, Butana Komphela, is the province’s previous MEC for police, roads and transport.

“Honourable Komphela has been given a clear mandate: ‘Go and fix that department and continue Benny Malakoane’s good work,” said Meeko. “We need the capacity of Benny Malakoane elsewhere, so he can help to drive change. We chose Komphela in his place, because he drastically improved the police and roads department and has the capacity to deal with political groups such as the TAC and trade unions. He will in effect demystify the health department.” 

Free StateBenny MalakoaneTreatment Action Campaign