Glenda Gray row: Academic body accuses health dept DG of 'abuse of power', actions are 'alarming'

accreditation
Professor Glenda Gray.
Professor Glenda Gray.
Bongiwe Gumede

Department of Health acting director-general Dr Anban Pillay "abused the power" of his office when he wrote to the chairperson of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) to recommend an investigation be launched into its president, Professor Glenda Gray, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) said on Monday afternoon. 

In a statement signed by Professors Jonathan Jansen, Barney Pityana and Brenda Wingfield, ASSAf said it found Pillay's actions "extremely alarming" and said it represents a violation of the constitutional right to academic freedom, which includes the right to freedom of academic research. 

The SAMRC on Monday morning apologised for Gray's comments, in which she criticised the state's lockdown policy, and said it would institute a fact-finding investigation into the "damage" the comments might have caused. 

It also banned any of its staff from speaking to the media until the matter of Gray's comments was resolved.

Pillay had requested an investigation into Gray's comments, claiming she had "made a number of false allegations against the government", GroundUp reported last week.

'Grave concerns'

Wits vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib earlier told News24 the investigation into Gray amounts to a "witch hunt", and called Pillay's letter "unacceptable".

ASSAf said it wishes to record "its grave concerns about the political attack" on Gray, who is one of its members. 

"Pillay did something that should raise red flags in our constitutional democracy," ASSAf said. 

"We, therefore, wish to record our objection in the strongest possible terms to what appears to be the bullying of a scientist, who not only heads up one of the nation's most prestigious research institutions, but who has a history of courageous service as a medical professional in fighting epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and now Covid-19."

READ | Ramaphosa calls on all citizens to play their part as SA heads to Level 3 lockdown

ASSAf said Pillay asked for the investigation into Gray simply because she held different views from the political authorities on the lockdown restrictions. 

"Without much subtlety, [Pillay] reminds the Board Chair that the SAMRC is 'an entity' of government, implying that scientists working there have no independent voice."

Gray has been at the forefront of a public spat between the health department and South African scientists over lockdown regulations, after she told News24 in an interview that the country's lockdown approach was "unscientific", a claim she has since denied. 

Gray, an acclaimed HIV vaccine specialist, paediatrician and an expert in HIV mother-to-child transmission, is a member of the 51-member Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), which advises the government on matters relating to the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Criticise

In the interview, she claimed there were increased malnutrition cases in children at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

Gray clarified that she did not criticise the lockdown or the extension of the lockdown. She said it was, in fact, critical, but emphasised that her critical comments related to some of the regulations.

ASSAf said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize had a "measured reply" when he disputed aspects of Gray's remarks in a statement last week, but it's Pillay subsequent actions which are concerning. 

The body said scientists around the world disagree on Covid-19 modelling projections of infection and death rates, as well as the effectiveness of full and partial lockdown strategies. 

ALSO READ | These are SA's 7 worst-hit Covid-19 districts

ASSAf said Covid-19 is a new virus and nobody has perfect knowledge on the course and effects of the disease on the human population. 

"It is in this context that we believe Professor Gray's views were completely within her competence as a researcher and medical specialist of international standing. It is also her right as a scientist to differ from political authority on questions of science."

The body said freedom of scientific enquiry is fundamental to the health of the country's constitutional democracy. 

Academics and researchers need the space to undertake independent research in an environment that is free from fear, intimidation and political interference, ASSAf said. 

"To threaten researchers and to muzzle their voice would have a chilling effect on creativity, innovation and experimentation."

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Zama zama crackdown: What are your thoughts on West Village residents taking the law into their own hands?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Results
Authorities should bring in the army already
10% - 1601 votes
Illegal miners can't be scapegoated for all crime
53% - 8578 votes
What else did we expect without no proper policing
34% - 5437 votes
Vigilante groups are also part of the problem
3% - 517 votes
Vote
Rand - Dollar
16.17
+0.5%
Rand - Pound
19.63
+0.2%
Rand - Euro
16.59
+0.2%
Rand - Aus dollar
11.52
+0.2%
Rand - Yen
0.12
+0.2%
Gold
1,802.29
0.0%
Silver
20.82
0.0%
Palladium
2,227.50
0.0%
Platinum
966.00
0.0%
Brent Crude
98.15
-1.5%
Top 40
63,996
-1.0%
All Share
70,731
-0.8%
Resource 10
64,048
-2.8%
Industrial 25
86,577
-0.6%
Financial 15
16,059
+0.6%
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.

LEARN MORE