Mhambi has been redeployed.

Monday, October 15, 2007

All is fair in life and death

There are worrying reports from South Africa that the editor of its largest newspaper is due to be arrested. The reason?

The Sunday Times reports claimed that, in two stays at the Cape Town Medi-Clinic for a shoulder operation in 2005, Tshabalala-Msimang, the countries controversial health minister, sent staff to buy alcohol, threw drunken tantrums, abused nurses and washed down medication with wine and whisky.

Tshabalala-Msimang, you might remember recently fired her deputy Madlala-Routledge who was making the right noises and implementing policies to address the countries Aids menace. Tshabalala-Msimang famously questions and has wavered on anti-retro viral treatment for HIV positive South Africans.

The newspaper report also said she had used her position to secure a new liver while hiding her alcoholism from the public and had been convicted of stealing a watch from a patient while superintendent of a Botswana hospital in 1976.

A Health Ministry statement said the allegations were "false, speculative and bizarre". Mbeki has shrugged off opposition calls to fire the minister.

As a friend put it to me, these are highly damaging reports and they (probably) broke the law to get the information, so they have it coming.

And so did the minister. She responded by taking the Sunday Times to court for illegally obtaining her medical records. The newspaper admitted having copies but denied stealing them. The paper however was ordered to return her medical records, finding that they had been illegally obtained.

Now this does pose a legal-philosophical dilemma. When Mhambi was at law school we were posed what we thought were unlikely moral and legal conundrums. If you are in a boat and you need to eat one of the passengers to stay alive, what do you? Should the police be able to tap a persons phone, or even break into their house, or wait, even torture to get crucial information and doing so they could save thousands of lives. And so forth. Interesting examples to argue about over a cappachino.

The problem is what should be extraordinay academic examples is part of South African public life today. South African truth is stranger than fiction.

Journalists should not be above the law. The law however makes many exceptions to this general rule, almost always when the journalists action is in the public interest.

Is getting rid of the Minister in the public interest?

As Nicoli Nattrass has carefully argued in her recent book, Mortal Combat: AIDS Denialism and the Struggle for Antiretrovirals in South Africa, denialism is a multifaceted attitude that purports, in the name of rigorous scientific inquiry, to “question” the science of AIDS.

Evidence of denialism by the government of South Africa is found in the fact that Mother-to-Child Prevention Prophylaxis (MTCTP), as well as the ARV roll-out in the public sector, were embarked upon only after the Treatment Action Campaign took the government to court. In the MTCTP case, with the health minister present, the government’s counsel argued that nevirapine was akin to thalidomide. This the court found false and specious. Immediately after the constitutional court ruling on MTCTP, the health minister told the media, “I must poison my people.” (July 2002)

Using the Actuarial Society of SA’s 2003 model, Nattrass estimates that had programmes not been inhibited, about 340000 lives might have been saved.

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