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Mbeki Fires Deputy Health Minister, Sparks National Outcry

South African President Thabo Mbeki has fired the outspoken Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge following reports of an unauthorized visit to an AIDS conference in Spain. However, as VOA's Delia Robertson reports from our bureau in Johannesburg, the firing has prompted outrage amongst HIV/AIDS advocates.

President Mbeki did not offer reasons for his decision to dismiss Madlala-Routledge, but his announcement follows reports that the former deputy minister traveled to Spain on official business without the president's approval. There are reports that Madlala-Routledge submitted a travel request but, due to a misunderstanding, had already left the country when her office was officially informed that Mr. Mbeki had turned down the request.

Together with Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Madlala-Routledge was a driving force behind the adoption of South Africa's new Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS. Under their leadership, the government drew up the plan with input from private institutions and activist organizations. The plan has received widespread approval and support.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has been on sick leave, has been widely criticized for her handling not only of South Africa's AIDS pandemic but of the public health sector in general. She is known to have had a poor working relationship with Madlala-Routledge. Patricia de Lille, leader of the opposition Independent Democrats, told national radio that Madlala-Routledge's poor relationship with the health minister is behind the dismissal.

"Well, I think its all got to do with the differences between her and the minister of health," she said. "The president has always taken sides with the minister of health and [Madlala-Routledge] is just a casualty of that [approach] by the president."

In addition to disagreements with her boss over the handling of HIV/AIDS, Madlala-Routledge earned the ire of both the health minister and the president for her outspoken comments on the failures of the public health system.

An earlier request she made for a complete review of the public health sector was turned down. More recently, she called the high rate of infant mortality in public hospitals a national emergency.

The health minister rejected her deputy's criticisms. Presidential spokesperson Makoni Ratshitonga hinted on national radio that the dispute may have influenced Mr. Mbeki.

"Well, the president would have been concerned about the contradiction between the two versions, between the minister on one hand and the deputy minister on the other," said Ratshitonga.

The Treatment Action Campaign, the country's foremost AIDS advocacy group, has urged Mr. Mbeki to reconsider his decision, saying the deputy minister has offered honesty, integrity, leadership and hope in a ministry that has become synonymous with pseudo-science and incompetence.