Thursday, August 9, 2007

Deputy Health Minister Sacked in South Africa

Disturbing news from South Africa. President Thabo Mbeki has sacked Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the deputy minister of health. It seems Madlala-Routledge was just too good at her job, talking about the need for better AIDS prevention and treatment programs and encouraging ANC leaders to set an example by getting HIV tests in public.

The most immediate casualty, apart from the deputy minister herself, may be South Africa’s newly developed National Strategic Plan for AIDS (2007-2011), a highly regarded and forward-thinking blueprint for tackling the crushing HIV epidemic in that country. Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge played a major role in getting the plan pulled together, which was developed with input from many health experts inside and outside of government as well as civil society leaders. Madlala-Routledge was able to take that leading role because her erstwhile boss, Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was out of the picture for a while with a serious illness that eventually required a liver transplant earlier this year.

The precipitous move is another sign of increasing strain within the African National Congress, as it prepares itself for party elections in December. Today, executives of the ANC's Women's League questioned the firing of Madlala-Routledge, coming as it did on the eve of Women's Day in South Africa. No word yet on the reaction of the South African Communist Party, which is a coalition partner of the ANC and of which Madlala-Routledge is a leader. (She is also a Quaker.)

The last straw for Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang, who has apparently made a full recovery, was when the deputy minister of health made an unannounced visit to a maternity hospital in the Eastern Cape. There, Madlala-Routledge found that the appalling conditions described by a local newspaper report were in fact true and that mothers and babies were dying needlessly.

Madlala-Routledge’s call for reform at the hospital was treated as insubordination by the Minister of Health. The ANC newsletter attacked the press reports as "dramatic but false" even as the Minister of Health began launching many of the needed changes.

The cause given for the deputy minister's removal was a trip she had taken in June to an AIDS seminar in Madrid, allegedly without Presidential permission. A one-sided press report suggested that she left in defiance of Mbeki's decision but rumors were rife in South Africa that she had been given permission to go, which was then revoked while she was in the air. As soon as she learned about the change, she took the next available flight home, without even attending the conference.

For related entries on Madlala-Routledge, click here.

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