Misguided loyalty?

The death of former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has been met with a wave of eulogies and criticism.

There is no doubt that the controversial minister, even in death, brings out the best and worst in people. Radio jock Gareth Cliff called her a ‘selfish, wicked bungler of the lowest order”, while the ANC Youth League said she was an ‘inspiring leader”.

The Mail & Guardian reveals today that Tshabalala-Msimang was at a crossroads when she died. Her family and close associates were trying to arrange an interview with a newspaper in which she would salvage her legacy, owning up to some mistakes made during her tenure.
It was never meant to be this way.

When Tshabalala-Msimang left the country in 1962 as Manto Mali to go into exile, she had romantic ideals of liberation and serving her people.

She was a stalwart in the youth league and the ANC’s Women’s League and served the ANC with distinction. That is until she was appointed health minister and made the policies of president Thabo Mbeki on HIV/Aids her own.

Tshabalala-Msimang’s uncritical loyalty to Mbeki made them the pair that was to become the joint face of government’s failure to tackle Aids in this country.

To deny that and instead harp lyrically on her six-month stint as minister in the presidency — as the youth league does — or neglect to mention her Aids legacy —as the South African Communist Party does — is simply disingenuous.

Whether they admit it or not, she did do harm. And all this happened under the watch of those who served under Mbeki then and are still top ANC leaders and Cabinet ministers.

Manto’s legacy is perhaps a disputed one, but the danger she personifies of extreme loyalty to the ANC leadership is something the party should take to heart.

Unquestioning loyalty to a leader may be key to unity, but uncritical support for everything the leader says and does is dangerous.

Speaking truth to power can cost one dearly, as former deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge can attest but if the ANC wants to remain the moral force of South African society the party will have to be honest with itself when a leader or a group of leaders goes off the rails.
Leaders on all sides should take care, and take courage, to show up mistakes and flaws when they arise.