The madness and evil of Manto and Thabo meets the madness and evil of Bathabile and Jacob

By Anso Thom

Having reported with many journalist colleagues on the darkest days on former President Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s distressing, fatal and quite mad HIV-denialism, the latest saga around social grants did bring back a sense of déjà vu. The denialism of the very real crisis and potentially devastating impact on the poor, spearheaded by President Zuma and his Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, brought back some painful memories.

Once you start joining the dots and making the links, the similarities in some instances are remarkable.

Under Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang we had the following:

  • A President in denial and gone rogue on science, medicine, the Constitution and human rights.
  • A morally corrupt Minister who for various reasons allowed herself to become the President’s henchwoman
  • A President who not only denied that lifesaving drugs needed to be made available, but also denied that these medicines were actually efficacious.
  • A Minister who with great zeal not only became the President’s denialist spokesperson, but took his denialist rambling to the next level, by adding garlic, lemon, beetroot and olive oil to the mix.
  • Bewildering press conferences where the health minster even resorted to speaking Russian and chastised the media when she did not feel like dealing with tough questions.
  • Corrupt individuals and companies circling like salivating hyenas, desperate to make a quick buck with all kinds of untested quack potions as a replacement for anti-retrovirals. Some unethical like Virodene, others shady charlatans like Matthias Rath.
  • A Cabinet who failed to hold either the President or the Minister accountable, or not until many had died or suffered.
  • A President happy to sit in the shadows and let the Minister take the body blows.
  • Showing a middle-finger to the Constitution by failing to honour the Right to Healthcare.
  • Tacit support of views that harmed mostly poor people.

We ended up with a poisonous concoction which not only made us the laughing stock of the world (a quick google of the 2006 Toronto AIDS conference will offer enough evidence), but also spread terror, confusion and heartache among poor people who could not afford the lifesaving medicine. These vulnerable people were on the receiving end of so many conflicting messages from their leaders, people who they looked up to for guidance.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2017 and again we have a similar recipe albeit with slightly different ingredients.

  • A President in denial and gone rogue on administrative procedure, social good, the Constitution, his responsibilities as a custodian and human rights.
  • A morally corrupt Minister who becomes the President’s henchwoman.
  • A President who denied there was a crisis (no crisis until there is a crisis, he told Parliament).
  • A Minister who with great zeal spread the message of confusion and stubborn denial with no thought for the poor who deal with the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not their grants will come.
  • Bewildering press conferences where the Minister and her spokesperson at times refused to speak English, take legitimate questions from the media, opting to rather chastise them for doing their jobs.
  • Corrupt individuals circling like hyenas, knowing that the social grants contract in this country is worth Billions.
  • A Cabinet who failed to hold either the President or the Minister accountable.
  • A President happy to sit in the shadows and let the Minister take the body blows.
  • Showing a middle-finger to the Constitution by failing to implement a Constitutional Court order to stop Cash Paymaster’s contract.

But perhaps that is where the similarities end. Many have tried to understand how Mbeki, by all accounts an intelligent man, became so swayed by the denialist theories that he was willing to risk his legacy, to reject science, science that actually saves people’s lives. Tshabalala-Msimang, a medical doctor by training, went from a poster child of good health to a pariah who did not miss an opportunity to promote her vegetable remedies. Whatever motivated their deadly denialism, it seems unlikely that corruption had much to do with it.

In this regard Jacob Zuma and and Bathabile Dlamini are not quite the same as their earlier Comrades in that one cannot but think that the absolute chaotic handling of the social grants matter, has a stench of corruption. A stink of lining the pockets of friends and ensuring that money, lots of it, ends up in the right or wrong places, depending on which team you back.

But corrupt or not, the past and present again converge when both the Mbeki and the Zuma teams, chose then and again choose now, to turn their backs on the cries of the poor. To block their ears and continue to operate in a “lala-land” where there is “no crisis” and we live in a “funny” democracy.

But now, as then, there is nothing funny when a President turns his back on the poor. There is nothing funny when Ministers, heading up Departments which  exists to serve the poor, are prepared to laugh off legitimate concerns and play silly buggers with semantics.

How galling it was to receive a graphic on Whatsapp last week, Minister Dlamini grinning in the one corner. A massive hashtag in bold, red letters #SASSACARES screaming at the receiver.

A line which reads” All social grants will be paid out from the 01 April 2017 as promised by our caring Government”.

“Caring” Government? Not then, not now. Now as then, government has lost touch with the reality faced by poor people in South Africa. For this, Zuma and Dlamini will pay the price as Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang did – only this time, another decade further into ANC rule, they will also likely drag the party down with them.

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.

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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. Photo:Wikipedia

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