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At last, an end to the lemons

What a difference a month makes. In a month our health regime has moved from folly and despair to hope and commitment. With a mandate for change, Health Minister Barbara Hogan has cut a swathe across a landscape of misery.

Since her inaugural speech on October 2 the transformation has been tangible. She signalled a change with the simple statement: “Health is about people. It is about serving people.” The previous beleaguered regime of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang existed in a bunker of opprobrium and arrogance, its officials serving a deathly ideology of denial, listening only to a president who sacrificed his people on the altar of loony science.

The department reflected the racial chips on president Thabo Mbeki’s shoulders and so saw health not as a service but as a battle of us against them. “Us” was government and “they” were a range of imagined enemies from the civil society activists of the Treatment Action Campaign and United Nations envoys to people living with Aids who demanded better treatment and a U-turn on the path of denial.

In the maelstrom public health suffered and the private sector was alienated by a series of ill-planned laws that were necessary, but introduced without diplomacy or finesse.

The rot filtered down into the system, where the story of patients treated like dirt in public institutions is so common that we no longer bat an eyelid.

Hogan has returned people to the centre of health policy and installed citizen as master and politician as servant. How novel. How refreshing.

This week she made things right with the science community, thus bringing rationale back to the centre of the fight against HIV/Aids. Mbeki alienated scientists in the first years of his presidency and it’s been a battle of attrition ever since. Now trust from an essential community may be back on the horizon. This week Hogan declared there was no doubt about the cause of Aids, putting to bed a useless debate that took up too much of our airtime.

In a country with as extensive an Aids pandemic as ours, health is the epicentre of wellbeing and development. It is high time it was given due seriousness by government.

Health has been rescued from the madness of lemons, garlic and beetroot, which are now restored to their role as nutritious fruit and vegetables, liberated from being the weapons of mass destruction that Manto had made them.

We hope Hogan makes the Cabinet cut after next year’s election. The health system deserves such a servant.

Springtime for democracy?
The Prague Spring that is warming the corridors of Parliament may be short lived and it may be a mere artefact of the ANC’s internal turmoil, but it is having some salutary effects.

This week the ordinarily slumberous National Council of Provinces threw out legislation that would have given the speaker of the National Assembly control over the composition of the SABC board, a blatantly unconstitutional arrangement and one that was clearly designed to enable the ousting of the Mbeki-appointees currently clinging to their seats.

And on Wednesday the ad hoc committee on intelligence legislation sent back for redrafting a Bill aimed at regulating the way state information is classified and protected, with other proposed laws covering the state’s data interception programme. The Protection of Information Bill was clumsily written and gave rise to a host of unintended negative consequences, among them a highly subjective secrecy regime that could be applied right down to municipal level, covering not just threats to national security but a swathe of state activity from tender negotiations to staff records.

These laws join a growing list of others, including the controversial Land Expropriation Bill and Medical Schemes Amendment Bill, in the repair shop — albeit not quite on the scrap heap. It will be some time before they return, perhaps as much as 18 months, given next year’s short parliamentary programme.

This is undoubtedly something to celebrate. All were too flawed to fix in the time remaining to this Parliament and to rush them through in the hope of securing the legacies of exiting Cabinet ministers would have saddled us with serious long-term problems.

The M&G and other media groups were particularly concerned about the Protection of Information Bill. We had argued that its stated principles of openness and accountability were contradicted by the way the legis­lation would work in practice, giving government a tool that could easily be used for censorship rather than security.

We are delighted that the committee decided to send it back. It is a victory for common sense, but not yet for openness. All those who value genuine openness and accountability as the bedrock of our democracy need to pay close attention to the form in which it re-emerges from the intelligence ministry.

Similarly, changes to the appointment procedure for the SABC board were designed to shift the locus of political interference, not to eliminate it. If the Bill was dropped because it was bad law then Parliament and the government must commit to a truly independent public broadcaster, not just one independent of Mbeki.

We are happy to gather rosebuds while we can, but we’re keeping a weather eye out for storms.

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