Thursday, December 17, 2009

Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is dead

Thabo Mbeki’s Health Minister is dead. She died of “complications” which stemmed from a liver transplant she had some time ago. On her tomb, whether she likes it or not, and whether it is “disrespectful” or not, will be the words “Aids denialist”. That will not be speaking ill of the dead - it will simply be stating the truth about some of her life.

She advocated HIV positive patients to eat garlic, beetroot, African potato (Madumbe), lemon juice AS A SUBSTITUTE for ARVs. That is the point at issue. No-one would suggest that eating these things would be bad for you. No-one would suggest that they may not even possibly be good. But to suggest that ARVs are harmful and these things can be used to substitute them, is simply criminal, when you are the Health Minister of the country.

The first time I met her was very soon after the exiles were allowed back into the country after apartheid. It was in the ANC office, in Pietermaritzburg. She and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (who was at the time still married to Jacob Zuma) had come to have a meeting with that extraordinary man, Harry Gwala, who ruled the Kwazulu Natal Midlands with a grip of iron, despite the fact that he had lost the use of his arms whilst a long term prisoner on Robben Island.

It was, really, mandatory for any upwardly mobile returning exile to pay their respects to him. He was, in some respects, a King-maker, in both the ANC and the Communist Party. He was undoubtedly influential, certainly in the early days, after his release. And so, there was a trickle of exiles, returning to the country; somewhat unsure of themselves – and needing to establish themselves, either within an existing powerbase, or alongside one.

Now Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang had, during their stay in the United Kingdom, run some sort of exiled Health Trust (if I am not mistaken, it was called the Health and Refugee Trust). I never quite understood what it was supposed to have done or what purpose it served. But it seemed to pay them a salary and it seemed to have access to a certain amount of funds. So, they came, ostensibly to talk about transferring that fund (and the work it was doing) back to South Africa, now that the Exiles had been allowed to return.

We sat around a large table, rather squashed in a fairly small room, which is what passed for the ANC meeting room in its then offices. I remember Harry Gwala being his usual, gentlemanly, cultured self (he was a lot of other things as well, but he was also that!). Eloquent words of welcome came from his mouth. His use of the English language impeccable; his speech always peppered with accurate quotations from Shakespeare and Stalin – both of whom he knew extremely well indeed.

And I watched Manto Tshabalala scan the room. She had extremely thick glasses, giving her an Owl-like appearance. She paid extremely careful attention when we all introduced ourselves. I watched her noting who was there and who was who.

A couple of years later, I encountered her again. This time, when I was working in the HIV/AIDS section of a Non-governmental organisation called the National Progressive Primary Health Care Network (NPPHCN). She was not in the Aids section of the organisation. She was in the Primary Health Care part. So I worked with her and watched her behaviour over one or two years, in an organisational setting.

She was extremely difficult to work with. It seemed to me that there was more than a tinge of racism to her make-up – but more than that, I got the impression she was highly manipulative and fundamentally lazy (intellectually and otherwise) – and that she would go to the most elaborate and extraordinary lengths, to mask that laziness.

So, her arguments would be, almost always ad hominem. (Why bother with the details, or the intellectual integrity, if you could bluff and bluster your way through your job?) I also came to see her has extremely ruthless and power-hungry. There was an almost bitter edge to her and this came out in the way she spoke to people – particularly people she did not see as important to her rise to wherever it was that she was going. So, I have to say, I steered clear of her. Once or twice I gave her a lift in my car to places she was going, but at all times I kept the conversation general and vague.

I was, therefore, extremely surprised when she was made Health Minister. I knew she had her eye on the position from the moment she stepped off the plane on her return from exile, but Mandela gave it to her rival, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, instead. But Manto wasn’t going to give up on that one, and eventually she got what she wanted.

That she abused her powers; that she was a disaster as a Health Minister; that she was a kleptomaniac while in Exile; that her medical Degree from the Soviet Union was a little suspect; that she was an alcoholic and that she probably was the cause of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, because of her Aids denialist polities – is common cause. But the issue of how she got to that position and how she was sustained and protected in that position, and how he was rewarded by yet another Ministerial position (even in the Zuma government) and how she maintained her extraordinarily high level of popular support within the ANC (number 55!) – that remains, for me, a complete mystery.

She was given a transplant liver – some say through jumping the queue by abusing her position in government - but that one has no proof of. There were (what seemed to me at any rate) very clear reports of her drinking bouts, even after receiving the new liver. Yet she continued to be supported by people very high up.

I do not understand why she continued to be supported, despite everything. It cannot be because the ANC will support its own, no matter what. There have been numerous examples, in recent history of where the ANC does not do that – where it is prepared to simply kick people out and leave them out in the cold - but not in the case of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. It is a real mystery.

And her legacy - and consequently the legacy of the ANC in relation to HIV and AIDS, because of her and because of the President who supported her and the members of that government that kept silent instead of opposing her, is the entirely unnecessary deaths of thousands of people. There is no circumspect way of putting that.

I, for one, still continue to support the ANC. I have to say though, her death makes that support, just a fraction easier. The explanation as to why she was supported by the Movement, so unflinchingly, throughout her political life, remains more than difficult.

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