Return of the quacks
By Anso Thom
For a long time, South Africa has been a country where charlatans are able to flourish and peddle dangerous remedies for all kinds of ailments.
Take a trip on a public train or a walk down a road in our city centres and you will easily find pamphlets marketing remedies for anything, from enlarging penises to bringing back lost lovers. Even more seriously, the city lamp poles are plastered in posters offering cheap pregnancy termination services. Poor people stand on street corners for hours offering pamphlets and directions to the closest ‛doctor’. All illegal, all dangerous, but almost all operating with impunity.
The reasons these quacks proliferate are many. Not so long ago we had a president and health minister who created an enabling environment for them. President Thabo Mbeki questioned the efficacy of lifesaving anti-AIDS medication, told people they were toxic, and dragged his feet when it came to signing into policy the rollout of these medicines for the thousands who were suffering and dying.
His Health Minister, a medical doctor, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang spoke often and passionately about the so-called healing properties of beetroot, garlic, lemon and olive oil. People sniggered, referred to her as Dr Beetroot and shook their heads.
But what Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang had done successfully, was to sow seeds of doubt. Many, many people living with HIV, desperate for a remedy not only to control the virus, but to exorcise it from their battered bodies, turned to the quacks, who promised to do so. What was criminal was that these ‛doctors’ were operating with the tacit support of the leaders who had the power to close them down.
They included the likes of German multi-vitamin peddler Matthias Rath, KwaZulu-Natal truck driver and seller of a concoction called uBhejane (the recipe of which he said was revealed to him in a dream by his ancestors) Zeblon Gwala, the likes of Tine van der Maas a barefoot Dutch nurse who pushed lemon, garlic, beetroot and olive oil concoctions at the behest of the health minister, or Belgian eccentric Kim Cools who continues to claim that he had injected himself with the HI virus but remains negative due to his remedies (see previous Spotlight).
Activists told stories and journalists wrote articles of the heartache these people had caused – the undignified deaths of mothers who left families orphaned as they dumped their antiretrovirals for Rath vitamins, the fatal and excruciating suffering of the much-loved DJ Khabzela after the health minister sent Van der Maas to heal him, or the illegal Rath clinical trials conducted on poor people, made to strip, have their photographs taken and give their blood.
And then there was Virodene – a powerful chemical detergent peddled by a bunch of crazy scientists as a cure for AIDS, which had as its cheerleader President Mbeki.
Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang were not alone in the rejection of proven treatments. Tshabalala-Msimang’s MECs either turned a blind eye to the fact that people were being used as guinea pigs, or did everything in their power to deny poor people access to lifesaving drugs.
Sibongile Manana was the MEC of Health in Mpumalanga at the height of the denialism years from 1999 to 2003. Now she is a Member of Parliament. As MEC she gave the Greater Rape Intervention Project (GRIP) in Nelspruit hell. She bullied Rob Ferreira Hospital’s Dr Thys von Mollendorff, a gentle caring doctor whose only crime was to try and help rape survivors. He offered them a dignified, safe space in his hospital where they were given the option of accessing legal, tested antiretrovirals to prevent infection. But Manana hounded Von Mollendorff and GRIP out of the hospital and treated them like criminals, dragging them to court and evicting them from the hospital.
Penny Nkonyeni, MEC for Health in KwaZulu-Natal during the Manto years, often rolled out the red carpet for her Minister. She printed quack pamphlets for distribution, hounded doctors who dared to offer pregnant mothers the option of treatment to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies, and she was a willing partner in finding crooked NGOs prepared to run illegal clinical trials using quack concoctions. Nkonyeni was later the speaker in the provincial parliament and Education MEC before being removed in a Cabinet reshuffle earlier this year. She indicated she was joining the private sector.
The examples are many and for those who were there, these memories are painful. Those who were there made a pact saying, never again.
Fast forward to 2016.
Dr Benny Malakoane is a medical doctor and was until recently Health MEC in the Free State. Over a three-and-a-half year period he oversaw the collapse of the public health-care system in the province, and turned the state machinery on elderly community health workers who were asking inconvenient questions, while facing multiple charges of fraud and corruption (these cases are still ongoing due to continued delays).
It now appears that, much like Manana and Nkonyeni, Malakoane has enabled a quack to operate with impunity in a state hospital, using unsuspecting state patients as guinea pigs in an illegal stem cell trial. In fact, this operation had been signed and sealed in a three-year contract which was due to further impoverish the Free State health system and enrich the shareholders of ReGenesis Health with millions of rands.
Questions must be asked over the enthusiasm of the MEC in signing this contract and personally overseeing its implementation. One has to ask how the MEC could be so enthusiastic in rolling out an untested stem cell intervention in the Pelonomi hospital’s orthopaedic department while his health system is collapsing and failing to get basic medicines to clinics and hospitals.
The Medicines Control Council led by Professor Helen Rees intervened within days of health minster Dr Aaron Motsoaledi becoming aware of this contract. It is refreshing and heartening to know and see in action the difference an ethical, incorruptible and no nonsense health minister and medical doctor can make. If only we had someone like Dr Motsoaledi in the early 2000s.
The MCC swiftly closed the ReGenesis operations at Pelonomi and have made it clear that according to the information they have, an illegal trial was being conducted, using an untested intervention.
For now, the operations have been brought to a halt and the Free State Department of Health has cancelled the contract. The MCC has sent ReGenesis a comprehensive list of questions, and Free State Premier Ace Magashule has been left with the task of holding his MEC accountable. Don’t get your hopes up.
Within a day of the information being revealed by Spotlight and the investigative television show, Carte Blanche, Free State premier Ace Magashule shifted his Health MEC to Economic and Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, and installed his former Police, Roads and Transport MEC Butana Kompela as the health custodian.
However, we cannot allow another quack enabler to get away without being held accountable.
The Free State Department of Health and Premier Magashule have to provide answers to some very serious questions. For instance, why did the Free State Department of Health publish a tender for stem cell therapy in the first place? On what basis was ReGenesis appointed in June? Why was Malakoane so closely involved with the project, chairing the board that would provide oversight of the work and research done by ReGenesis?
Simply shifting Malakoane to another post doesn’t make these questions go away. For there to be any accountability we need answers to these questions. The people of the Free State are not guinea pigs. They are not pawns in an alleged scam to enrich charlatans.
Not on our watch. The ball is in your court Premier Magashule