South Africa’s controversial health minister who promoted garlic as AIDS treatment dies at 69

By Celean Jacobson, AP
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

South African former health minister dies at 69

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who gained notoriety for her dogged promotion of lemons, garlic and olive oil to treat AIDS, has died. She was 69.

The ruling African National Congress said Tshabalala-Msimang died in a Johannesburg hospital Wednesday from complications related to a 2007 liver transplant.

She was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital in November. Local media outlets said she was possibly undergoing tests for a possible second transplant when she died.

“We pay homage to this gallant fighter and will forever treasure the contribution she made in the struggle for liberation and the building of our democracy,” the ANC said in a statement.

During Tshabalala-Msimang’s eight years in office, the minister was responsible for some advances in South African health care. But her disastrous policies on HIV made her the most unpopular government minister in post-apartheid South Africa. She was ridiculed locally and internationally and nicknamed “Dr. Beetroot” — another one of her suggested AIDS remedies — and “Dr. Garlic.”

Tshabalala-Msimang had a loyal defender in close friend the-then President Thabo Mbeki, not least because of his own doubts about the link between HIV and AIDS.

Tshabalala-Msimang and Mbeki have been blamed for not preventing over 300,000 deaths according to a study by Harvard University. There have been calls by some activists for them to be charged with genocide.

South Africa, a nation of about 50 million, has the world’s largest number of HIV cases with some 5.7 million people infected with the virus.

AIDS activists blamed the health minister for spreading confusion about AIDS. They won a landmark court case against the ministry in 2002 to force it to provide pregnant women with drugs to stop them infecting their unborn child; and in 2003 to give antiretroviral therapy to people in the more advanced stages of the disease.

Reaction to her death was largely muted and sympathetic even from her harshest critics.

“We don’t wish ill on any human being even though we had a very difficult time with her as minister of health,” Vuyiseka Dubula of the Treatment Action Campaign, a group she often clashed with, told the South African Press Association.

Tshabalala-Msimang shrugged off constant calls for her resignation but was eventually replaced in 2008 after Mbeki was ousted by the ANC.

South Africa’s subsequent two health ministers have won praise for turning around the government’s controversial health policies.

Tshabalala-Msimang remained on as a cabinet minister under the caretaker presidency of Kgalema Motlanthe who replaced Mbeki. But she was not given a post after President Jacob Zuma was elected earlier this year.

However, she remained on the ANC’s national executive committee.

Tshabalala-Msimang was born near Durban Oct. 9, 1940. She completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Fort Hare in 1962 — just after the African National Congress was banned — and shortly after that was ordered into exile with 27 other students who had been singled out for their leadership potential, including Mbeki.

When she said she was leaving for exile, her mother implored: “Please do something for me if I should never see you again — become a medical doctor,” according to the Department of Health.

Tshabalala-Msimang graduated from the First Leningrad Medical Institute and then went on to gain a Masters degree in Public Health from the University of Antwerp in Belgium. She worked at hospitals in Tanzania and Botswana and returned to South Africa as apartheid was crumbling in 1990.

She was elected to parliament at the first democratic multiparty elections in 1994, was named deputy justice minister in 1996 and health minister in June 1989.

She was married to Mendi Msimang, a former ANC treasurer, and had two daughters.

Details of the funeral have not yet been announced.

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