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outraged over axing of South African health minister

outraged over axing of South African health minister


South African deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who was credited with revamping a beleaguered campaign against AIDS, was fired by President Thabo Mbeki late Wednesday.

South Africa's deputy health minister, one of its most respected women politicians, lost her job on the eve of the nation's Women's Day.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was credited with revamping a beleaguered campaign against AIDS, earning the respect of AIDS activists who had blasted her boss, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, for her promotion of garlic and lemons as a remedy for AIDS and her open mistrust of antiretroviral medicines. President Thabo Mbeki fired Madlala-Routledge late Wednesday following reports that she had gone to Spain to attend an AIDS conference without his permission.

Madlala-Routledge's aides told a newspaper earlier this week that there had been a mix-up in dates and she had already arrived in Spain by the time she received word from the president that she should not go. Since then she has made no comment, but AIDS activists said Thursday she would address a press conference Friday.

A two-paragraph statement from the presidency, released just before midnight, gave no reason for the dismissal.

Opposition parties and AIDS activists reacted to the dismissal with shock and outrage Thursday.

''This is a dreadful error of judgment that will harm public health care and especially the response to the HIV epidemic,'' the Treatment Action Campaign said in a statement. ''It indicates that the president still remains opposed to the science of HIV and to appropriately responding to the epidemic.''

Patricia De Lille, leader of the small Independent Democrats party, noted the dismissal came ''just hours before the dawn of our 13th Women's Day,'' calling it ''an insult to every single South African woman who has the courage to stand up for the truth.''

Mbeki--whose own record fighting HIV has been criticized by AIDS activists--is a staunch ally of Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang.

Tshabalala-Msimang was ill for nine months and has only recently resumed her duties. During the health minister's illness, Madlala-Routledge mended fences with the activists in the Treatment Action Campaign and the mainstream medical community and was one of the driving forces behind a new five-year plan that has made reducing the number of new HIV infections one of its main targets and aims to extend treatment to 80% of those with AIDS by 2011.

Doctors, trade unionists, and international organizations such as UNAIDS celebrated that South Africa had finally emerged from an era of mistrust and confusion over AIDS.

But when Tshabalala-Msimang returned to work in June after a liver transplant, her first public gesture was to snub South Africa's national AIDS conference on the grounds that her deputy had been given a more prominent speaking role than she had.

''If full control of the AIDS program is now back in the hands of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, we can expect an end to the optimism and vision of recent months, and a progressive new approach, and a return to the dark ages of denialism,'' said Mike Waters, health spokesman for the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

Madlala-Routledge and Tshabalala-Msimang are among several women prominent in South African politics. Mbeki was hailed when he appointed Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as deputy president, and the country has a number of women at the helm of key ministries, such as foreign affairs.

The South African parliament also has the highest proportion of women legislators in Africa due to the ruling African National Congress's policy that 33% of its members should be women.

But despite the gains made to improve conditions for women in the last decade, millions are still battling poverty, discrimination, and abuse.

About 75% of African women under 30 are jobless, while in 2002 women held only 14% of positions at top management level, with black women holding only 2% of these positions.

Women also suffer the most from the AIDS pandemic and bear the brunt of the country's high rate of murder and rape with a staggering 52,617 women raped in the last year.

The recent murders of three lesbians showed that South Africa was celebrating National Women's Day in a climate of violent homophobia and sexism, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

Last month the bodies of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa were found with fatal bullet wounds in a field in Soweto. Sigasa had been an activist for the rights of people living with HIV or AIDS as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people's rights.

While police have refused to speculate on the motive for the murders, it is feared that the two women were the latest in the growing number of lesbians killed for their sexual orientation.

''Despite legal commitments to equality for all, lesbians in South African townships are still targeted for rape and murder,'' Jessica Stern, researcher with the Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The South African government will look more closely at crimes against women, Mbeki said at a Women's Day event Thursday, the South African Press Association reported. Mbeki said nothing about Madlala-Routledge's dismissal. (AP)

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