A fiercely loyal leader

2009-12-22 00:00

THE late Dumisani Makhaye, a staunch member of the African National Congress, used to say that a revolutionary should suspect something amiss when he or she gets praise from counter-revolutionary forces. “There is a possibility that you have sold out, when you get praised by those who oppose us,” he used to say.

This was my first thought when I heard the news of the death of an illustrious freedom fighter and former Minister of Health, Dr Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang. I immediately worried what the newspapers would carry the following day, well understanding the way she was perceived by the media. I was not totally disappointed by the media or those who opposed her approach and philosophy towards the national democratic revolution. Indeed, if she had been praised by them, then something would have been amiss. What shocked me, however, were the voices filled with satisfaction that she had passed on.

Those of us who had the honour of serving under her knew her as a caring, fiercely loyal, frank and nurturing leader. An incident that immediately springs to mind when I recall our time together at the Department of Health is when we accompanied the then deputy president Jacob Zuma on an official visit to Nigeria in 2003. As is the norm on official visits, a team of administrators from South Africa sets up an operations centre in a hotel room where all the administrative work linked to the trip is carried out. Ministers do not frequent such centres.

I guess the minister got wind of the fact that the Nigerian government had prepared gifts for the South African delegation and every­one had received a gift — a desk clock and a thermo mug, to be precise. She asked me if I had received a gift and I responded that I had not, but added that it did not matter. Having been a reporter, freebies do not particularly excite me. However, she was of a different view. She felt that there needed to be justice. Before I could dissuade her, she was marching towards the elevators, beckoning me to follow her. In no time we were among flustered officials who did not know how to act around a minister. She chided Nomfanelo Kota from Foreign Affairs at the time for not getting me my gifts and she said we would not leave until I got them. The next thing I knew, I was clutching a thermo mug and desk clock. Smiling emphatically, the minister asked if I was happy. I said it was fine but it really was not a big deal. That remark earned me a short and stinging lesson on being thankful but it was all said in jest. If Tshabalala-Msimang was convinced that her cause was a fight for justice, then she did not let go.

Tshabalala-Msimang was a forthright person. You always knew where you stood with her. She was also deeply loyal to the ANC. “If the ANC says I must jump, I do not ask questions, I jump. It is only after I have jumped that I ask why I had to jump in the first place,” she used to say.

She was also highly committed to her portfolio. As a minister, she carried the unenviable task of bringing equality to South Africa’s health system in an environment where resources were scarce and where some sections of our population still sought to protect their privilege. The issue of exclusive, private health care was one she tackled with vigour and which, in the process, may have added to her list of detractors. She did a lot to bring the vision of equality closer to attainment within the health care system.

It has been painful to observe misrepresentations of her as, among other things, a denialist when it came to HIV and Aids. She understood that dealing with HIV and Aids was more than just about providing drugs to those infected. In the absence of a cure, her approach emphasised prevention and the promotion of healthy lifestyles to delay progression from HIV to Aids. For those with Aids, treatment for opportunistic infection and antiretroviral therapy was provided.

Because she was painfully well acquainted with the limitations of the health system she presided over, she raised concerns about the costs of drugs. She was concerned about the development of a resistant strain of HIV if patients were not managed properly. For drawing the attention of the public to all these challenges, she was cast as a person who did not care about Aids sufferers. Some of the challenges that we observe today regarding the roll-out of the programme are the same challenges she was castigated for.

It would be naïve, even for those of us who worked with her, to dismiss the hatred directed at her as just being a case of a misunderstood politician. It was a simple case of unequal power relations, where those who have always dictated the agenda strike with utter ruthlessness against those among the developing nations of the world who dare to stand up for themselves and choose a path of self-determination.

Perhaps in years to come, when more has been exposed about what Tshabalala-Msimang stood for and did, we will have the bravery to apologise for our views. Perhaps it is a testament to her loyalty to the cause of her movement that those who are opposed to the views of the ANC could not bring themselves to be civil to her even after she died. In the final analysis, perhaps this should not worry us because, as Makhaye said, a revolutionary should be really worried if she or he receives praise from anti-progress forces. In the meantime, as her organisation, the ANC, says: “Aluta Continua”.

• Harry Mchunu is a former spokesperson for the late Minister of Health, Dr Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang. He writes in his personal capacity.

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