Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Madlala-Routledge Stands Alone

Party discipline holds--for now. All government officials and ANC members with political ambitions are distancing themselves from South Africa's fired deputy health minister, Nozizwe Madlala, who in the matter of a few short months had distinguished herself as an honest and refreshing voice on the HIV/AIDS crisis.

At a press conference last Friday, Madlala Routledge mentioned in passing that she had talked with three different government ministers who were concerned about conditions at Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape. On Tuesday, all three released statements declaring that they had NEVER EVER invited her to check out the problems at the troubled hospital.

Madlala-Routledge visited the hospital on her "own initiative," they said, and they had NOTHING to do with it.

Can you spell Catch-22? Two doctors at Frere hospital were also suspended. One apparently got in trouble for writing directly to President Mbeki that conditions at the hospital really were bad. (She should have gone through channels) The other was suspended for allowing conditions at the hospital to deteriorate so badly. (Yes, even though an official health ministry task force decided things were quite normal at Frere.)

Race considerations often lurk beneath the surface of South African politics. And there's no doubt that the Democratic Alliance, a mostly white opposition party, is making a lot of hay over Madlala-Routledge's firing. But South Africa's minority whites aren't the only people who are upset.

Dr. Olive Shisana, who used to be director-general of the Ministry of Health until she was axed as well, has come out in support of Madlala-Routledge as has Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of the Congress of Southern African Trade Unions--although he apologized to the families of dead ministers after making a remark about deadwood in the Cabinet. And Dr. Kgosi Letlape of the South African Medical Association called Madlala firing "regrettable."

In truth, Madlala-Routledge's departure must be seen as a power play by President Mbeki and a warning to others who don't show him loyalty ahead of the ANC's December meeting to choose a party president. Although Mbeki cannot run for a third term as president of the country, there is apparently nothing to stop him from being chosen as head of the party for a third term.

It would be the height of irony if axing the deputy health minister--which seems to be achieving the desired political results so far--strengthens the hand of a populist like Jacob Zuma, a longtime Mbeki rival, who is positioning himself to be ANC's next leader as well as the head of the government. As I learned on my recent trip to South Africa, many people in the professional classes--black, white and other--fear that Zuma could become South Africa's own Robert Mugabe. They would rather bumble along with Mbeki than risk a Zuma election.

Meanwhile, Madlala-Routledge has been busy house-hunting. She loses her government-funded home and office at the end of September and will be taking a significant cut in pay as well. (She is still a Member of Parliament.)

For related blog entries on Madlala-Routledge, click here.

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