Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good riddance

As all my South African and some of my foreign readers will know, South Africa is going through extraordinary political times. Thabo Mbeki, until recently our president, was ousted today after a titanic struggle with his former deputy, Jacob Zuma. I'm not going to comment on these developments (I try to keep politics out of this blog and, besides, I'm not sure I have anything substantive to say) but I will note that there is good news for skeptics amid the chaos. Kgalema Motlanthe, interim president until the election next year (when Zuma will almost certainly take over), today announced his cabinet and mercifully, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is no longer our Minister of Health! (Given that Motlanthe is a close Zuma ally, the cabinet is unlikely to change substantially after the election). So... good riddance. Manto was an unmitigated disaster as health minster, an international embarrassment and quite possibly an unsavory character to boot. First among her many sins was AIDS denialism: while countless people died from AIDS and millions more got infected, Manto did not content herself to sit idly by. No, she actively opposed effective science-based treatment. In the face of a pandemic, she eschewed proved treatments like anti-retrovirals, and advocated sheer quack remedies like eating beetroot, garlic and the African potato. While Mbeki has to shoulder a lot of blame for South Africa's disgraceful AIDS policies during the first part of this decade, there is plenty of blame left over for Manto.

Unfortunately, we're not rid of Manto completely, Motlanthe appointed her Minister in the Presidency. This move, alas, is something of a promotion: the position is a powerful one (occupied until recently by the influential Essop Pahad) and is very, very roughly the equivalent of the Chief of Staff in the American system. Of course, how much power Manto will yield depends on the president and we can only hope Motlanthe and later Zuma will ignore her quacking.

Manto's replacement, incidently, is Barbara Hogan, a struggle hero. I know little about her but Zackie Achmat, leader of the Treatment Action Campaign, has endorsed her enthusiastically. And that's good enough for me.

Note: I heard one political commentator describing Manto's move to the Presidency as a demotion. I'm no expert on the South African political system, so I'm not really in a position to disagree. As I noted above, thought, in presidential systems a minister's power depend less on her position in an organizational flow chart, and more on her relationship with (and influence on) the president. However, South Africa has a weird system whereby the president is elected by parlaiment, but then has presidential powers. What all this amounts to is hard to say...

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