EDITORIAL | Motsoaledi’s return could work, but he needs a DG who can say “no minister”

EDITORIAL | Motsoaledi’s return could work, but he needs a DG who can say “no minister”Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi speaking during the Stop TB Conference in Cape Town in 2014. (Photo: Kopano Tlape/GCIS)
Comment & Analysis

In some respects, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi was the right person for the job when he was appointed as South Africa’s Minister of Health in 2009. But in 2024, the healthcare context in the country looks very different. Spotlight editor Marcus Low asks what we might expect from this new chapter with Motsoaledi in the top health job.

When Dr Aaron Motsoaledi first became South Africa’s Minister of Health in 2009, the number one task in front of him was clear. He had to rapidly expand the country’s HIV testing and treatment programme.

Over the next decade, he did exactly that. When he left the health portfolio in 2019, there were around 5.1 million people on HIV treatment in the country – roughly six times the 850 000 there were in 2009. Driven largely by this expansion in the HIV treatment programme, life expectancy in the country increased from 58.4 years when he started to 64.9 when he left.

But while Motsoaledi largely succeeded on HIV and tuberculosis, there was a sense that he was not a details man and struggled to see through important health system reforms. He never got on top of fundamental challenges like healthcare worker shortages and poor governance in provincial health departments. That is why we were cautiously optimistic when Motsoaledi was replaced by Dr Zweli Mkhize in 2019. We thought it likely that Mkhize would be better at turning rhetoric into actual reform. As it turned out, any hopes of that happening were derailed first by the COVID-19 pandemic, and then more definitively by the Digital Vibes scandal.

The return

In a recent editorial considering possible health ministers after South Africa’s 2024 national elections, we argued that President Cyril Ramaphosa might feel that he can get more out of Motsoaledi back in the health portfolio than at home affairs, where we think it is fair to say he struggled. Even so, hearing Ramaphosa read out Motsoaledi’s name on Sunday night came as a surprise. Our money was on Dr Joe Phaahla staying in the job – as it turns out, he was demoted to again serve as Deputy Minister of Health.

What to make of all of it?

From one perspective, Motsoaledi’s return is understandable. He is a close and loyal ally of Ramaphosa and therefore someone the President would want to keep in his Cabinet. He is a medical doctor who knows the health portfolio. He is a staunch supporter of National Health Insurance (NHI) and his impassioned leadership style is probably considered an asset by the President.

If one considers the Health Minister’s number one task to be the implementation of NHI, and if one sees the implementation of NHI to be an essentially political process, then you can see a case for Motsoaledi’s return.

But even if one accepts this line of argument, it does come with some kinks that are hard to straighten out. For one, the NHI Act is now law and the political battle has thus, to some extent, already been won, and it is time to move from the broad strokes of political rhetoric, that Motsoaledi excels at, to the detail of implementation, which hasn’t been his strong point. And, to the extent that the political battle surrounding NHI has been reopened due to the ANC losing its parliamentary majority, the type of leadership required now will involve building consensus beyond just the ANC, and arguably more challenging for Motsoaledi, making strategic concessions such as allowing a greater role for medical schemes than envisaged in the NHI Act.

But all that only really matters if one accepts the premise that implementing NHI should be the top priority for the Minister of Health.

There is an argument that implementing NHI will take many years and there are much more urgent healthcare issues that need to be dealt with right away. The harsh reality is that provincial health budgets have been shrinking, healthcare worker shortages remain acute, governance in provincial health departments is often a disgrace, and health sector corruption remains a far from solved problem.

During his previous stint as health minister, Motsoaledi faced many of these problems and, while he often said the right things, the bluster wasn’t ever really backed up with a sustained programme of reform. To be sure, there were important successes like the establishment of the Office of Health Standards Compliance and attempts to revitalise health facilities, but when it comes to the fundamentals of having a well-managed healthcare system with enough healthcare workers, the picture was bleak when he left the health ministry in 2019 and it remains so today. In short, there is a view, only reinforced by his struggles at home affairs, that Motsoaledi is not the right person to have in charge if you want to implement the complex, systemic reforms required to sustainably address South Africa’s urgent healthcare problems.

That may be a bit harsh. Ministers are after all politicians and their roles are meant to be political. While it certainly helps to have ministers who are serious about, and committed to the details of implementation, they should be working in conjunction with government departments and directors-general (DGs) in particular. It certainly hasn’t helped our Health Ministers that our National Department of Health has often been overstretched and arguably lacking in strong leadership.

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One underlying problem here is that over the last two decades, South Africa’s DGs and heads of provincial government departments for that matter, have too often been yes-men or people appointed as a political favour. While that may in some ways make a minister or MEC’s life easier, it does not make for good governance when a DG or a head of department is a walk-over. Ministers need to lead on policy, but have DGs and deputy DGs who are trusted and empowered to get on with implementation.

One criticism of Motsoaledi’s previous stint in the job is that even though he had a good DG in Precious Matsoso and a few decent deputy DGs, rather than shield them from the political crises of the day, he drew them into those crises. One expert we spoke to this week suggests that Motsoaledi loved the limelight and wouldn’t let others lead while another charged him with not being hands-on enough – maybe the key insight is that those things might all have been true to some extent.

Either way, given Motsoaledi’s strengths and weaknesses and the very complex health challenges South Africa faces, it is now more important than ever that as Minister he leads on political and policy matters, but gives the actual administration the space to lead on implementation. For that to work, he will need a DG who is not just another politician or cadre, but one who is an excellent manager and implementer, and maybe above all, who has the guts to say “no minister” when he or she needs to.

*Low is editor of Spotlight.

Note: Spotlight is editorially independent and is not affiliated with, nor does it endorse any political parties. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.

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