Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang passed away yesterday. While foreign readers might not know who she is (or was), she will be well known to anyone with a connection to South Africa. They will know her as the AIDS-denialist Health Minister who associated with quacks and never lived up to her promise upon taking office that she would roll out ARV treatment to those in need in SA.
Perhaps better still, they will know her for her (in)famous comments that HIV and AIDS should be treated with a diet of garlic, lemons, beetroot and African potato.
Oh, and then there was the legendary interview with John “not always right, but never going to admit it” Robbie on Talk 702 where they spent most of the time discussing how she should be addressed: “I’m not Manto to you!”.
And how could we forget the liver transplant saga? Did she need it because she was an alcoholic? Did she jump the queue? How did the Sunday Times gain access to her medical records? And should they have published them?
But those who choose to celebrate her death are missing some important points. Perhaps most importantly of all, the fact that she is no longer Health Minister and hasn’t been for well over a year now. So her death doesn’t make any difference to the state of the Health system or the supply of ARV drugs in the country. She had no control over that yesterday, nor does she have any today. Their delight won’t bring those who have died of AIDS on her watch, back.
And indeed, I am still left wondering how much of the rhetoric and denialism came from her, and how much came from Thabo Mbeki. Not that that excuses her complicity, but I believe that during her tenure in the Department of Health, she acted as a shield for what were, at that point, ANC and Government policies.
And there was more to Tshabalala-Msimang than just her last few infamous years. She made sacrifices – and as so many South Africans did – went into exile during Apartheid. She had been a member of the ANC for nearly 50 years and, prior to 1994, worked hard in the struggle, using her medical skills to support Umkhonto weSizwe.
“Comrade Manto dedicated her life to the struggle for justice and democracy in South Africa and she left the country to fight outside the borders of our country for the liberation of her people,” said ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.
“She has given many young ANC cadres guidance over the years and her death has robbed the ANC of a truly committed cadre and stalwart to the transformation agenda of the ANC.”
I am not defending Tshabalala-Msimang’s stance on HIV and AIDS. She could have, should have done more. Someone with her knowledge should have recognised the stupidity of Mbeki’s policies and had the integrity to challenge them or to step down. That there were many complex personal and political reasons why she didn’t is no excuse.
What I am saying is that there was more to this woman than will be remembered:
Tshabalala-Msimang’s contribution to our democracy is huge. We should remember her for that. We should remember that she gave up almost her entire life, put herself in danger, and left her family for the cold Russian winter, in the hopes of making things better for her people. She achieved that, and lived to see a better life for all. For that, we should be grateful. But her legacy is also the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Aids sufferers who could have been saved had her beliefs been different.
I wonder how many people know ALL the facts before they begin their celebrations at her passing.