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Johannesburg - Free State health MEC Benny Malakoane must explain his department's actions against community healthcare workers, the Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA (Hospersa) said on Friday.

“It's a sad irony that while community healthcare workers are being charged under Section 12 of the Constitution for an illegal gathering, these workers play a vital role in healthcare at grassroots level in a province where health services at hospitals and clinics have collapsed, and citizens are being denied their right to health care, enshrined in Section 27 of our Constitution,” said general secretary Noel Desfontaines.

More than 100 community health workers were arrested in Bloemfontein for staging a night vigil at the health department offices on Thursday.

The vigil was staged after health workers failed to secure a meeting with health MEC Benny Malakoane, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) said.

The workers and TAC members, mostly older women, took part in a vigil in an attempt to “speak out against the failings in and collapse of the Free State health system”, TAC general secretary Anele Yawa said.

Yawa said they had previously demanded a meeting with Malakoane following a sit-in on June 27. She said the vigil was part of a campaign to remove Malakoane from his position.

Community health workers have been protesting against the termination of their contracts and demanding they be paid.

Desfontaines said the union wanted Malakoane to explain the department's actions - especially in view of the fact that the national department of health has identified primary healthcare as one of the main pillars upon which it would build a refocused health sector incorporating a National Health Insurance.

Those arrested were expected to appear in the Bloemfontein Magistrate's Court on Friday.

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has called for the immediate release of the healthcare workers.

“We demand that police release health workers arrested for taking part in a vigil against the failing health system in the Free State. Every citizen in this country has the right to protest and speak out against the lack of service delivery,” said Ncamisile Nkwanyana, the party spokeswoman on health.

The Congress of SA Trade Unions on Thursday called for community health workers to be formally brought into the health care system as employees of the department of health, and unionised.