South African AIDS activists criticize firing of Madlala-Routledge
South Africa's deputy health minister was fired last week. Critics say it's political.
Johannesburg, South Africa
The firing of a government bureaucrat isn't usually the kind of story that newspaper editors put on page one.Skip to next paragraph
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But the sacking of Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, South Africa's deputy health minister, has struck a chord in South African society, exposing deep differences over sensitive issues of AIDS, governance, and race.
Ms. Madlala-Routledge – a longtime member of the ruling African National Congress credited with hammering out the country's first strategic plan for the AIDS crisis – was fired last week after taking a trip to Spain to attend a conference on AIDS, a trip that was not approved by President Thabo Mbeki.
In a letter explaining his decision to fire her, Mr. Mbeki wrote that Madlala-Routledge's colleagues complained about her "inability to work as a collective."
Her firing has touched off a firestorm among AIDS activists, and political analysts say Mbeki's decision has undermined his credibility in a crucial year, when the ruling party will begin to choose its successor as president.
"It has sent all the wrong signals," says Steven Friedman, a political analyst for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa in Johannesburg. "It's not enough to say we're dealing with the [AIDS] problem. You have to show enough concern to win the trust of the people."
The anger and misunderstanding surrounding Madlala-Routledge's firing speak volumes about the growing importance of AIDS in South African society. No other nation in the world has more AIDS patients than South Africa. Out of the 40 million people in the world living with HIV, 5.41 million of them live in South Africa. Approximately 2 million South Africans have died since the epidemic began here in the 1980s, and nearly 500,000 South Africans with HIV have no access to antiretroviral treatment.
Roots of defensiveness
It's a crisis that took root during the apartheid era, when black men had to leave their families behind in townships to find work in the cities, a setup that weakened black families.
But it's the black-majority government that has been left to deal with the consequences, and the presidency of Thabo Mbeki in particular has dealt with criticism over its handling of AIDS almost as a racial slur.
"This situation is complicated by our racial history," says Friedman. "You have the negative cycle of bigotry and defensiveness. It affects everything, when you had white prejudice that assumes that HIV and AIDS are purely signs of promiscuity among blacks. The response of blacks is often a defensive one – that the issue of AIDS is exaggerated."
This defensiveness filters into most political discussion, says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. adding that it hampers the spirit of compromise necessary for democratic government. "What I bemoan, and what I see in the media, are two extreme positions. It cannot be that one side represents 100 percent good, and the other side is 100 percent bad. The answer lies between the two."