South African President Thabo Mbeki and his grossly underperforming Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, have long been in denial about AIDS and the epidmic that has infected more than 5 million South Africans. It took a judicial ruling in a civil action taken against the ruling ANC government to make available anti-retroviral therapy for pregnant women.
This last week has seen Mbeki fire the courageous deputy health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who, in her short stint in the job, showed us what a person of integrity and honesty can achieve in the fight against HIV/ AIDS.
In her tenure at the health ministry, Madlala-Routledge spoke about setting an example on AIDS. She took a public AIDS test and encouraged other leaders to do the same. She spoke eloquently about her relatives who had died of AIDS, and about how, as a nation, efforts to destigmatise the pandemic had to be made.
In 2003 in an interview with the Washington Post, Mbeki said: “Personally, I don’t know anybody who has died of AIDS.”
Former newspaper editor and anti-Apartheid activist, Allister Sparks wrote in his book "Beyond the Miracle" that Mbeki’s then spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, who died in 2000, and Peter Mokaba, the youth leader who catapulted Mbeki into the presidency, both died of AIDS. Mankahlana served Mbeki for over a year and died while a member of his staff.
Last week, Madlala-Routledge's alleged impropriety of her trip to Spain to attend a conference on HIV/AIDS without Mbeki's blessing, provided him the opportunity to get rid of her.
It is at times like these, when courageous voices like Madlala- Routledge’s are silenced , that we should remember what Nelson Mandela said when he handed over the reins of power to Mbeki in December 1997.
The former president warned: “One of the temptations of a leader who has been elected unopposed is to use his powerful position to settle scores with his detractors, to marginalise them and in some cases get rid of them, and to surround himself with yes-men … .
“The leader must keep the forces together, but you can’t do that unless you allow dissent …
"People should be able to criticise the leader without fear or favour. Only in that case are you likely to keep your colleagues together.”
These are words Mbeki should have remembered before he acted last week — but were not by a president who's legacy, as his rule peters to an ignominious end, is nothing but that of AIDS denial, support for a murderous dictator to the north, and rampant crime and lawlessness in the country; and were not by a man who has come to fear words of courage from those around him.