South Africa

Op-Ed: The madness and evil of Manto and Thabo meets the madness and evil of Bathabile and Jacob

By Anso Thom 30 March 2017

Having reported with many journalist colleagues on the darkest days of former President Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s distressing, fatal and quite mad HIV-denialism, the latest saga around social grants did bring back a sense of déjà vu. By ANSO THOM.

The denialism of the very real crisis and potentially devastating impact on the poor, spearheaded by President Jacob Zuma and his Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, brought back some painful memories.

Once you start joining the dots and making the links, the similarities in some instances are remarkable.

Under Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang we had the following:

  • A president in denial and gone rogue on science, medicine, the Constitution and human rights;
  • A morally corrupt minister who for various reasons allowed herself to become the president’s henchwoman;
  • A president who not only denied that lifesaving drugs needed to be made available, but also denied that these medicines were actually efficacious;
  • A minister who with great zeal not only became the president’s denialist spokesperson, but took his denialist rambling to the next level, by adding garlic, lemon, beetroot and olive oil to the mix;
  • Bewildering press conferences where the health minster even resorted to speaking Russian and chastised the media when she did not feel like dealing with tough questions;
  • Corrupt individuals and companies circling like salivating hyenas, desperate to make a quick buck with all kinds of untested quack potions as a replacement for antiretrovirals. Some unethical, like Virodene, others shady charlatans like Matthias Rath;
  • A Cabinet that failed to hold either the president or the minister accountable – or not until many had died or suffered;
  • A president happy to sit in the shadows and let the minister take the body blows;
  • The showing 0f a middle finger to the Constitution by failing to honour the right to healthcare; and
  • Tacit support of views that harmed mostly poor people.

We ended up with a poisonous concoction that not only made us the laughing stock of the world (a quick google of the 2006 Toronto Aids conference will offer enough evidence), but also spread terror, confusion and heartache among poor people who could not afford the life-saving medicine. These vulnerable people were on the receiving end of so many conflicting messages from their leaders – people who they looked up to for guidance.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2017 and again we have a similar recipe albeit with slightly different ingredients.

  • A president in denial and gone rogue on administrative procedure, social good, the Constitution, his responsibilities as a custodian and human rights;
  • A morally corrupt minister who becomes the president’s henchwoman;
  • A president who denied there was a crisis (no crisis until there is a crisis, he told Parliament);
  • A minister who with great zeal spread the message of confusion and stubborn denial with no thought for the poor who deal with the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not their grants will come;
  • Bewildering press conferences where the minister and her spokesperson at times refused to speak English or take legitimate questions from the media, opting to rather chastise them for doing their jobs;
  • Corrupt individuals circling like hyenas, knowing that the social grants contract in this country is worth billions;
  • A Cabinet that failed to hold either the president or the minister accountable;
  • A president happy to sit in the shadows and let the minister take the body blows; and,
  • The showing of a middle finger to the Constitution by failing to implement a Constitutional Court order to stop Cash Paymaster’s contract.

But perhaps that is where the similarities end. Many have tried to understand how Mbeki, by all accounts an intelligent man, became so swayed by the denialist theories that he was willing to risk his legacy, to reject science, science that actually saves people’s lives.

Tshabalala-Msimang, a medical doctor by training, went from a poster child of good health to a pariah who did not miss an opportunity to promote her vegetable remedies. Whatever motivated their deadly denialism, it seems unlikely that corruption had much to do with it.

In this regard Jacob Zuma and and Bathabile Dlamini are not quite the same. One cannot but think that the absolute chaotic handling of the social grants matter has the stench of corruption. A stink of lining the pockets of friends and ensuring that money, lots of it, ends up in the right or wrong places, depending on which team you back.

But, corrupt or not, the past and present again converge when both the Mbeki and the Zuma teams chose then and again choose now to turn their backs on the cries of the poor. To block their ears and continue to operate in a “lala-land” where there is “no crisis” and we live in a “funny” democracy.

But now, as then, there is nothing funny when a president turns his back on the poor. There is nothing funny when ministers, heading up departments which exists to serve the poor, are prepared to laugh off legitimate concerns and play silly-buggers with semantics.

How galling it was to receive a meme on Whatsapp last week – Minister Dlamini grinning in one corner. A massive hashtag in bold, red letters #SASSACARES screaming at the receiver.

A line below reads: “All social grants will be paid out from the 01 April 2017 as promised by our caring Government.”

Caring” Government? Not then, not now. Now as then, government has lost touch with the reality faced by poor people in South Africa. For this, Zuma and Dlamini will pay the price as Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang did – only this time, another decade further into ANC rule, they will also probably have dragged the party down with them. DM

This article also appears on Spotlight www.spotlightnsp.co.za.

Anso Thom is the Head of Communications at SECTION27 and co-editor of Spotlight.

Photo: Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma in Polokwane, 18 Dec 2007. (Original photo by Greg Marinovich)

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