Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
I have observed the wall-to-wall coverage of the travails of the Health Minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, with growing disquiet. Following two weeks of revelations and court battles involving the Minister and Sunday Times editor, Mondli Makhanya, I fear that there is more than a whiff of something of the 1692 Salem witch-hunt in this sorry saga.
In a parliamentary democracy, like ours, it is absolutely correct Ministers are held accountable for how they discharge their duties.
Ministers must expect and be able to respond to the relentless volley of questions about their ministries from both parliamentarians and journalists. No public representative should be above such forensic scrutiny. After all, we are elected by the public and our salaries are paid by the taxpayer.
Before returning to the subject in hand, I would like to reiterate my view that journalism must be responsible and, preferably, self-regulating. This is no easy task, if we do not share an attachment to a common set of values or ethical principles. There are also the complex and interrelated ethical questions pertaining to rights to privacy, fair and accurate news reporting, censorship and, more problematically, to matters of decency and taste. This week’s lurid Sunday Times headline "Manto: drunk and a thief" speaks to the heart of this matter.
My party, the IFP, never deflected from criticising the Health Minister whenever we believed her department’s policies were wrong and failed the constitutional tests.
Our health spokesperson, Dr Ruth Rabinowitz’s robust critique of government health policy, particularly around combating HIV/Aids, is in the public domain. Indeed, in 2002, the IFP was party to a class action with the Treatment Action Campaign to compel the Health Minister to fulfil her constitutional obligation to provide anti-retroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the HIV virus. The eventual provision of anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women in KwaZulu Natal in 2003 was a great show of leadership on the part of the IFP and an equally embarrassing setback for the Health Minister.
There is, however, a clear dividing line between a Minister’s public office and private life, which has become dangerously blurred in the case of the Health Minister. I would like to briefly enumerate some of my concerns.
On Mr Makhanya’s podcast (no shrinking violet he), you can read an interview he gave to Fred Khumalo (who so happens to be a Sunday Times columnist), explaining why his paper published private details regarding the Minister’s liver operation and her past in Botswana.
First, yes, it was wrong for Mrs Msimang to steal those items some thirty years ago. But for goodness sake, readers, how many of us did things in our youth that we would be mortified if they came to light now? "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone". Is it really in the public interest that this excruciating, embarrassing misdeed be splashed across the Sunday Times? She was, after all, punished at the time by deportation. I must ask: what has happened to our spirit of ubuntu?
I have wondered if Mr Makhanya’s modus operandi is to try and force the Minister to sue for character defamation so that his paper can cross-examine her at the witness box. This was, of course, the Marquis of Queensberry’s successful strategy in his infamous litigation against Oscar Wilde. If I am right, I hope the Minister does not take the bait.
The events of recent weeks have been cruel enough.
Then there is the complaint about the allegation made that in March of this year President Mbeki called up surgeons at the Donald Gordon Medical Centre to insist that they approve a liver transplant for the Minister of Health. First, I find it highly unlikely that the Head of State would place the life of another citizen in jeopardy in order to prioritise the Minister’s liver transplant. I find it equally unlikely that the Donald Gordon Medical Centre would break medical guidelines.
I suspect that if the President did make the alleged call, he did do so out of anxiety, as would any first citizen for a member of their government. For with the burden of accountability I mentioned comes some measure of extra protection by the state. The Minister of Health, love or loathe her, is, after all, responsible for the health of the nation.
Do we resent the fact medic teams follow the President or his deputy?
Let me pose a question here: would there be such an outcry if the President made such a call on behalf of, say, Madiba or the footballer, Jomo Sono? Answer honestly. We are incensed because the Minister is unpopular.
Following the logic of the Minister’s detractors, do "self-inflicted" problems (in this case, her alleged alcoholism) also include being overweight, diabetic or cancer-related smoking? Fellow parliamentarians beware and get on that treadmill now!
I know that what I have written might be considered maverick and, in many ways, might be on the wrong side of public opinion. The herd instinct, after all, is irresistible. It can also be wrong. I have not penned this to exonerate or condemn the Minister for how she has discharged her duties. Nor have I addressed the question of how the President has exercised his constitutional prerogative to hire and fire ministers.
These are other matters which have been given inches of black ink in recent times. I have, rather, merely sought to underline the need to maintain the dividing line between a Minister’s public accountability and a person’s private life.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
Contact: Jon Cayzer, 084 555 7144