President Thabo Mbeki has over-burdened Transport minister, Jeff Radebe, with the responsibilities of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's portoflio, but the South African media has been so obsessed with
her liver transplant and the so-called mystery that
surrounds it that it has completely ignored this more serious matter, writes Akhona Cira on the journAIDS blog.

Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is facing an extended recovery period that will render her unable to return to work for a full six months, her doctors have said. This is a best-case scenario, if the minister doesn’t suffer any relapses or develop other illness (as she reportedly developed hepatitis while in hospital for something else).

The Citizen newspaper quoted Tshabalala-Msimang’s doctor, Professor Jeff Wing of the Johannesburg Hospital, as saying this week that the minister would remain in a high-care facility for 10 days before being admitted to a general ward for four weeks.

“It will take between five to six months for her to return to work,” Wing said, adding that Tshabalala-Msimang would also be on life-long medication.

In the meantime, President Thabo Mbeki has appointed Transport Minister Jeff Radebe to stand in for Tshabalala-Msimang as Acting Minister of Health. At the same time, he will need to support his own flagging ministry. Why?

Why is Mbeki burdening the transport minister, who has the humongous task of making sure that people are not traveling in death-trap taxis and fighting what promises to be a lengthy battle over the taxi recapitalisation project, never mind ensuring we have an efficient transport system in place for the 2010 World Cup, and that the Gautrain is actually built without going too many billions over-budget, among other things?

However, the media, obsessed with Tshabalala-Msimang’s liver transplant and the so-called mystery that surrounds it, seem to have completely ignored this very question. Mbeki has not given any indication that he has plans to relieve Tshabalala-Msimang of her duties although surely retirement would be better for her health.

When the media reported that Tshabalala-Msimang’s husband had requested (he later denied making such a request) her release I thought, now here is a man with a good head on his shoulders. Tshabalala-Msimang can no longer help the sick in this country. Sadly, she has herself to think of and she must let others be concerned with the country’s health matters.

Deputy Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a politician who has gained herself popularity in a ministry that previously has been shrouded in controversy and had lost the respect of civil society, seems the ideal candidate to act in Tshabalala-Msimang’s absence, and perhaps even succeed the ill minister.

The media has not really called Mbeki to task about his blatant sidelining of a more-than capable politician who dared challenge him to take an HIV test in public. The media, as the guardians of public interest, seem to have conveniently forgotten that as far as the health ministry is concerned, Mbeki’s judgment seems to suffer disproportionately.

He has sat on the fence on the matter of HIV and AIDS, occasionally issuing platitudes like, “the government will strengthen its fight”. He has often been accused of being a denialist – in the past he has even questioned whether there is a link between HIV and AIDS, and on another occasion, denied that he knew anyone with HIV.

In any war, and the world is at war with HIV/AIDS, we do not have the luxury not to act. If a general falls, another must take her or his place to command the troops. We need leadership in the health ministry, not a short-term, half-baked solution. – Akhona Cira