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South African Health Minister Subject of New Controversy

South Africa’s health minister is in the midst of controversy again – only this time it’s not about her proposed treatments for HIV/AIDS. A newspaper alleges misconduct, and possible alcohol abuse, by Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang during a stay at a Cape Town hospital.

VOA reporter Delia Robertson is following developments. From Johannesburg, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the story.

“These are allegations being made in the Sunday Times Newspaper… editors say they conducted a five month investigation into a stay at a Cape Town hospital about two years ago where she had surgery on her shoulder. And the newspaper alleges that during that stay she ordered staff about and sent people out to buy alcohol for her to consume and people in her room to consume on more than one occasion during that stay. The newspaper says this raises serious questions,” she says.

Robertson says she has not seen the evidence gathered by the newspaper to support its allegations. Asked whether the paper alleges the alcohol was for a party at the hospital, Robertson says, “No, it wasn’t a big party they were referring to. They were referring to a series of occasions when alcohol was apparently brought into her room and that she sent hospital staff members out to purchase it. And so the newspaper says this does, if it is true, raise serious questions about her ability to perform as a minister of a government.”

The newspaper did not use the term ‘alcoholism.’ But Robertson says, “The implication is that there could be a problem with alcohol in the minister’s case.” The health minister underwent a liver transplant earlier this year, at which time questions about alcohol use were raised.

Minister Tshabalala-Msimang denies the allegations and has threatened to sue the newspaper. She is also demanding the return of what she says are personal medical records.

President Thabo Mbeki has supported the health minister throughout her term in office. The minister was mired in controversy when she proposed using beet juice, garlic and other foods to treat HIV/AIDS. Robertson says, “He (Mbeki) personally hasn’t issued a statement, but there have been statements from the president’s office saying that it’s really a campaign to discredit the minister and that the president doesn’t intend to act on unsubstantiated information to act against his minister.”

A statement from the president's office reads in part: "The Presidency would like to reassure all South Africans of the integrity of the public health system as led by Minister Tshabalala-Msimang and the Cabinet collective."