South Africa's embattled health minister faced a fresh barrage of criticism Sunday over her mistreatment of staff after this week refusing to quit amid allegations of drinking and theft.
While a beleaguered Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has pledged to tough it out, observers say the flood of allegations will have major repercussions for President Thabo Mbeki who is steadfastly backing his health minister.
AdvertisementAfter reports accusing the health minister of incompetence, alcoholism and theft, Sunday newspapers this week highlighted the plight of her recently fired deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge.
The sacked deputy minister, who had questioned the government's health policy, has likened her time spent under Tshabalala-Msimang to that experienced in solitary confinement during the height of apartheid in the 1980's.
The often outspoken deputy has claimed Tshabalala-Msimang, with whom she had differences of opinion over policy had promised to "fix her"
"I actually felt abused in that situation," she told the Sunday Independent newspaper of her time working under the health minister.
Fired after taking an unauthorised trip to an AIDS conference in Spain, the Sunday Times reports Madlala-Routledge is broke after government has demanded thousands of rands from her to cover the trip and other random expenses.
Leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance Helen Zille called government's action a "vendetta" while AIDS activists -- with whom she had a good relationship unlike her superior -- claim she is being victimised.
After the deputy minister's sacking the Sunday Times reported Tshabalala-Msimang had been convicted in the 1970s of stealing a patient's watch and other property while working as a hospital administrator in Botswana.
Under the front-page headline "Manto: A Drunk and a Thief", the paper also said the minister -- who underwent a liver transplant earlier this year -- has a long-standing drink problem.
This week the Sunday Independent quoted a former Botswana government official as saying a psychiatric doctor had pleaded with him for clemency for Tshabalala-Msimang, whom he was treating for kleptomania.
Tshabalala-Msimang has often been been pilloried by the media, with her championing of vegetables to help combat AIDS earning her the nickname "Dr Beetroot" and the first calls for her head.
"She personally has been seen as being responsible for the policy failure on HIV and AIDS," said Franz Kruger, a journalism lecturer at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University.
According to Steven Friedman of the Pretoria-based Institute for Democracy in South Africa, the recent allegations had been seized upon by her critics, and Mbeki's support of her spoke volumes about his position.
"People are not looking beyond what they see on the surface...But nobody asks why did Mbeki reappoint her in 2004, why did he constantly stand up by her? He is happy with what she is doing."
Friedman added that Mbeki faced losing his credibility as the costs of keeping Tshabalala-Msimang in office have risen.
"Up until now, questions were purely on policy matters, now it is her personal credibility."
Tshabalala-Msimang's office has branded the allegations "false, speculative and bizarre" while response of the powers that be has been to close ranks around her.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has deplored the "character assassination" and the government has called the reports "distasteful".
Meanwhile analyst Xolela Mangcu, writing in the Sunday Times, slammed Mbeki for his protection of his health minister.
"There is no reason Tshabalala-Msimang should have any more privileged status (than) any other person. And yet we have a president who sees fit to protect her privileged treatment over other citizens."
A defiant Tshabalala-Msimang told reporters this week she would not step down.