South Africa has always lagged behind in its HIV/AIDS policy, despite having a greater capacity to address health issues than any other sub-Saharan African country. Before 2003, President Thabo Mbeki’s administration denied the reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, claiming it was a treatable disease, that eating beetroot was a suitable cure, and that the President himself knew no one with the disease. His Minister of Health, Ms. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was the bullhorn for many of these faulty theories, giving rise to the notion that the government was incapable of dealing with HIV and AIDS.
Ms. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang
In early August, an unfortunate setback was dealt to the South African population, 12 percent of whom are estimated to be living with the disease. President Mbeki fired the deputy minister of health, Ms. Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, on allegations that she attended an AIDS conference in Spain without permission. Since her hire as deputy, Ms. Madlala-Routledge has been a credible force in the fight against HIV and AIDS. She has been one of very few within the government to adequately tackle the issue with real consideration and policy shifts. It is a wonder, then, why President Mbeki thought it appropriate to dismiss her and to allow Ms. Tshabalala-Msimang to remain.
If anything, Ms. Tshabalala-Msimang ought to have been ousted for her propagandizing and her ineptitude in providing the people of South Africa with real treatments and methods of prevention.
Civil society in South Africa and all over the world are condemning President Mbeki’s decision, insisting that Ms. Madlala-Routledge was a rare ray of hope in South Africa’s longstanding inability to deal with AIDS. “We believe that the deputy minister has played a fundamental role in bringing civil society and professionals together to support the government’s National Strategic Plan (NSP) for HIV/AIDS, on an unprecedented level,” said the South African Clinician’s Society. Furthermore, the global Joint Civil Society Monitoring Group has described the deputy’s release as a “major setback to the development of a unified national response to HIV/AIDS.”
Since 2003, the South African government has strived to fulfill a new set of goals in HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. This policy has been met with relative success (though little of it can be attributed to the current Minister, Ms. Tshabalala-Msimang) – more information on the disease is being distributed, adults are receiving some level of ARV treatment, and methods of prevention such as condoms are no longer taboo (though recent reports of recalls on faulty condoms do not bode well for the current policy). Deputy Madlala-Routledge was outspoken on all of these reforms, giving the people the chance they deserve in fighting this epidemic. Thus, it seems that President Mbeki has fired the wrong health minister. Unless Ms. Tshabalala-Msimang follows up on the reforms put forth by deputy Madlala-Routledge, South Africans will continue to suffer. An estimated 1,000 South Africans die each day as a result of the lax HIV/AIDS policies stated by President Mbeki and minister Tshabalala-Msimang.
At AFJN, we encourage you to advocate for better health care and basic services in Africa, particularly for those whose governments have left them without adequate methods of treatment and prevention. The international community must be willing to speak out on the issue of health, to hold President Mbeki accountable for failures in HIV/AIDS policy, and to ensure that South Africans receive the treatment they need. South Africa should be willing to set an example and to take the lead in HIV/AIDS policy in Africa. Firing committed deputy health ministers with good policies is a far cry from fulfilling that ideal.