Quiet and unassuming, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi comes across as the type of politician who just wants to get the job done.
After cutting his legislative teeth in the unrelated portfolios of education, transport and agriculture in the Limpopo provincial legislature since 1994, Motsoaledi concedes that it’s not all smooth sailing in one of the country’s toughest portfolios.
“There are times I feel like I need a massage for all the headaches I have, but my spirits are lifted when I do something and see the results — that’s when you start realising these things can happen,” Motsoaledi said.
Beginning in his new portfolio in May 2009, the man from Limpopo immediately set about steering the health system away from the course plotted by his predecessor, the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Less charitably, some might say he has been undoing the damage that was wrought.
Although the most critical change in medical policy — that of the government’s approach to HIV/Aids — began during Barbara Hogan’s brief stint as health minister immediately after Tshabalala-Msimang, Motsoaledi has nevertheless made great strides of his own in changing the country’s agenda on health.
From actively pursuing his 10-point plan to overhaul the South African health sector by 2014, to his ambitious plan to implement the country’s National Health Insurance (NHI) strategy, his commitment to reviving South Africa’s health system has been significant.
The momentous step of accepting in its entirety a damning report on the South African health system by renowned medical journal the Lancet in 2009, seems to have set the tone for his period in office, with stakeholders in the medical sector talking of a transformed era under Motsoaledi.
“We’ve seen a massive change since the Manto years — he listens and he understands the challenges we face in HIV/Aids. I’d say he’s one of the best deployments the ANC has ever made,” Nonkosi Khumalo, chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign, told M&G.
Motsoaledi’s career as medical professional has stood him good stead in his duties as health minister.
After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery from the University of Natal, Motsoaledi worked in both the private and public sectors as a medical practitioner in the 1980s and early Nineties.
“It makes a huge difference when you know what’s happening on the ground, and can engage with people from that perspective, having been there yourself,” Professor Diane McIntyre, the South African Research Chair in ‘Health and Wealth’, said of Motsoaledi.
Even though he worked for some time in the sector, the minister says he was not suited to private healthcare, despite its earthly rewards. “I was once in private practice, but I had to leave — I definitely didn’t get into health for the money,” he said.
The man’s biggest challenge in his portfolio still lies ahead of him though, with the execution of the NHI scheme due to be rolled out over a 14 year period.
Facing opposition from business, private healthcare providers and opposition politicians, Motsoaledi acknowledges it won’t be easy going — but remains steadfast in his opinion that a comprehensive health service is what all South Africans need.
“Many countries went through this scepticism and worry, but only once the NHI is tested we will find out if it works. At the end of the day it’s about bringing the necessary care to the people of South Africa,” Motsoaledi says.
With significant milestones on his journey into uncharted medical territory behind him, Motsoaledi remains humble about his achievements, saying that if he were to be replaced tomorrow, the work would continue regardless.
“It’s not my programme — it’s a government programme. I am just implementing it.”