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South Africa Honors Controversial Former Health Minister

  • Scott Bobb

Tshabalala-Msimang, who passed away last week, drew the anger of AIDS activists by arguing that antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV sufferers were toxic and that nutrition and a healthy lifestyle were more effective.

The South African government has honored, with a state funeral, a former health minister who was best known internationally for her controversial views on HIV/AIDS. The service was one of many tributes paid to Manto Tsabalala-Msimang since she passed away last week.

South African President Jacob Zuma delivered the main eulogy in a three-hour church service honoring former Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

"Comrade Manto touched our lives in her various capacities, as a comrade, a dedicated medical doctor, a distinguished servant of the people, a gender activist and a humanitarian," he said.

Tshabalala-Msimang passed away last week at the age of 69, after suffering complications from a liver transplant two years ago.

A stalwart in the ruling African National Congress, she spent 28 years in exile during the apartheid era.

After obtaining a medical degree in the Soviet Union she worked as a doctor at ANC camps across southern Africa.

Mr. Zuma eulogized her as an activist who fought for better health care for women and children and an end to smoking in public areas. He praised her leadership in the fight against domestic violence and the forced marriage of teenage girls in some traditional communities.

Mr. Zuma said these accomplishments were not reported in the media because they did not generate headlines.

"That many of her achievements were not highlighted and recognized in her lifetime is sad and unfortunate," he said.

After the end of apartheid, Tsbalala-Msimang served in parliament and as minister of justice before being named health minister in the government of former President Thabo Mbeki.

It was in this capacity that she drew the anger of AIDS activists by arguing that antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV sufferers were toxic and that nutrition and a healthy lifestyle were more effective.

Activists say this position slowed the distribution of the drugs in a country with one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world and caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

She was transferred to the presidency in a Cabinet reorganization two years ago.

The South African government under Mr. Zuma has adopted an aggressive program to expand the distribution of anti-AIDS drugs and HIV prevention campaigns. He said Tshabalala-Msimang was involved in developing this program.

Many AIDS activists in South Africa have paid tribute to the controversial leader and muffled their criticism out of respect for her grieving family.

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