South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki is facing condemnation from home and abroad, over his sacking of the popular deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. She was known for her role in bridging civil society and the scientific world in the battle against South Africa's greatest scourge -HIV/AIDS.
Top class magazines such as the New York Times warns that unless the President "finally starts listening to sensible advice on AIDS, he will leave a tragic legacy of junk science and unnecessary death".
Advertisement"Unlike other African countries, South Africa has the financial resources and the medical talent to successfully take on its HIV /AIDS epidemic. What it lacks is a president who cares enough about his people's suffering to provide serious leadership," laments the New York Times editorial this week.
Renowned scientific magazine Nature this week described Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge's dismissal as a "serious error of judgment" that "augers very badly for South Africa's HIV/AIDS response".
The British medical journal, the Lancet, said of the "many injustices" relating to the dismissal, the most concerning was that "Mbeki has put a question mark over his government's commitment to the AIDS treatment plan that Madlala- Routledge drove through, thus potentially denying the right to life for a large proportion of the population".
The Lancet noted that the "Freedom Charter", still central to African National Congress policy, states that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people."
"Given the public outcry about the firing of this much respected deputy health minister, and the possibility that this act could signal the government's back-tracking on a national AIDS treatment strategy, it is questionable whether President Mbeki is acting according to the will of the people," concluded the Lancet.
Adrienne Germain, President of the International Women's Health Coalition, said that after her organization had met Madlala-Routledge in March "we were convinced that a new era was possible for HIV and AIDS in South Africa".
"Sadly, within a few weeks, these steps of progress were reversed as soon as Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang returned to her post. And now, a bright ray of hope has been extinguished with the unwarranted and politically-motivated dismissal of Deputy Minister Madlala-Routledge," said Germain.
Meanwhile, in her first comments since her sacking, Ms Madlala-Routledge said it was a known fact that there had been differences of opinion between her and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
The health minister is known as Dr Beetroot after telling people with HIV to eat beetroot and garlic, while expressing doubts about the efficacy of anti-retroviral drugs. Ms Madlala-Routledge said that she had criticized the minister's stance two years ago.
"She [Dr Tshabalala-Msimang] had said to me: 'I will fix you' and maybe she has fixed me," Ms Madlala-Routledge was quoted at a news conference.
Meanwhile, this has been denied by Dr Tshabalala-Msimang's office. "No such statement was ever made," the department of health, said.
Ms Madlala-Routledge denied local media reports that she had defied President Thabo Mbeki by going to Madrid with her son and a consultant, at a cost of 160,000 rand ($22,000). "I acted in good faith in the belief that our president had approved the trip", she was quoted.
Organizations within the country have also rallied around the dismissed deputy minister with both the Rural Doctors Association of SA (Rudasa) and the SA Clinicians Society describing Madlala-Routledge as a symbol of hope in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.
Says the SA Clinician's Society, which represents over 12 000 HIV health professionals: "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." The Society asked the Minister of Health to clarify why the mother-to-child HIV prevention programme (PMTCT) has not been expanded beyond 30 percent coverage after five years, and why more effective regimens have not been implemented and why fewer than 20 percent of adults needing antiretrovirals are receiving them, after more than three years of publicly available ART.
"At a time when South Africa's international profile was tainted by unfortunate, albeit perhaps well-meant, actions and pronouncements by Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and the Office of the Presidency, Madlala-Routledge stood out as someone who, together with Deputy-President Pumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, understood the importance of scientific action to be taken against the HIV/Aids pandemic," said Rudasa.
"She endeared herself in the hearts of South Africans, and international observers, by understanding and acknowledging the important role of the Treatment Action Campaign, and by embracing them, and other NGOs, in the fight for dignity of all South Africans."
Meanwhile, the Joint Civil Society Monitoring Group - representing 20 organizations including Wits University's Center for Health Policy, Positive Women's Network, AIDS Consortium, AIDS Law Project, UCT School of Public Health and Family Medicine, described the dismissal as a "major setback to the development of a unified national response to HIV/AIDS".
"Contrary to the statements from the Presidency, she has been a team player - by earning the respect of leading health academics, researchers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, health care workers. People living with HIV/AIDS and other users of the public health sector," added the Group.
Surprisingly, Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says the dismissal of Madlala-Routledge - her close ally in developing the new AIDS plan - had not caused "a crisis".
"The government and the department of health will continue to work on HIV and AIDS. Whether from inside or outside government, people will work on things that they feel strongly about. It is important to do so. There isn't a crisis," Mlambo-Ngcuka told a gathering of the SA National Editors' Forum.
At the same time, the Deputy President conceded that government could be working faster to implement the new plan.
"To some extent I agree that we could have done some things much faster since the national strategic plan was adopted," said Mlambo-Ngcuka.
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