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The woman who won't keep quiet

By unknown | Dec 14, 2006 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Earlier this month one of the organisers of the International Diabetes Congress, held in Cape Town, spoke admiringly about Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge.

Earlier this month one of the organisers of the International Diabetes Congress, held in Cape Town, spoke admiringly about Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge.

He described how she not only attended the formal opening of the massive event, but even attended several of the conference sessions.

This, he said with something like wonder in his voice, was a thing "that I've never known a politician to do before".

But Madlala-Routledge is no ordinary politician, as her unprecedented challenge to her own government's stance on HIV-Aids has shown.

Born on the Natal south coast in 1952, she attended the Inanda Seminary, a girls' high school in Durban, before going on to register for medicine at the University of Natal. She was excluded from the university because of her involvement in politics, which ended her dream of becoming a doctor.

Instead, she went to the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, where she obtained a social sciences degree, majoring in philosophy and sociology.

She followed this with diplomas in adult education and medical technology.

She worked for six years in a medical lab before resigning to become a full-time organiser for the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), which was aligned with the United Democratic Front. Her work at NOW earned her three spells in detention, including a year in solitary confinement.

In 1979 she joined the ANC, which was banned, and five years later also became a member of the South African Communist Party, in which she rose to become a central committee member.

When the ANC swept to power in South Africa's first non-racial general election, Madlala-Routledge became an MP and used her position to continue her fight for women's rights. She chaired the multi-party parliamentary women's group and also headed the ANC parliamentary women's caucus.

She was a co-editor of South Africa's official country report for the United Nations' World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 - the same year that she underwent a six-month bout of chemotherapy for breast cancer.

But it was in June 1999, when President Thabo Mbeki named her as deputy minster of defence, that the public sat up and took notice. The appointment of a black woman to a post so close to the heart of a traditionally macho establishment was in itself enough to draw comment.

But what really raised eyebrows was the fact that Madlala-Routledge was, and still is, a Quaker [member of the Religious Society of Friends] and a committed pacifist.

Her husband, Jeremy Routledge, was at the time director of Cape Town's Quaker Peace Centre.

"A Quaker serving within the military establishment does not settle easily with many Friends," noted a fellow Quaker.

But Madlala-Routledge sees her job as including transforming the military culture, confronting the arms industry and promoting conflict resolution in the region.

"Many Quakers are very active in bringing about social justice and have been throughout history," she said.

"I have never met a Quaker who thought that sitting and meditating would solve the world's problems."

In April 2004 she was appointed deputy minister of health, a job to which she brought all the drive and commitment she had shown in her previous roles.

During an unannounced tour of the state's HIV-Aids facilities in KwaZulu-Natal, she interrupted a staff member's litany of administrative problems to say: "Sometimes I wish I was back in the army. I could draft an order tonight and send it to you tomorrow."

One of the areas delegated to her by Health Minister Manto Tshabalala- Msimang was chronic illnesses, which Madlala-Routledge decided included HIV-Aids. She began having low-profile meetings with groups such as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which had been calling for Tshabalala- Msimang's dismissal.

While the minister continued to punt garlic, beetroot and lemon juice, Madlala- Routledge made it her priority to increase the number of people who had access to antiretroviral treatment. Spurred by the Aids deaths of two cousins, she complained that those receiving treatment were a "drop in the ocean" compared with those who weren't, and she had no qualms about criticising Tshabalala-Msimang's ally, the German vitamin salesman Matthias Rath.

Resisting attempts by Tshabalala-Msimang to gag her, she found an ally in Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo- Ngcuka, who had also been a leader of NOW during the apartheid years.

Mlambo-Ngcuka took over from discredited Jacob Zuma as head of the South African National Aids Council and was also appointed to lead a newly formed cabinet-level committee on HIV-Aids.

When Tshabalala-Msimang was hospitalised in October with a lung infection, Madlala-Routledge took the bit in her teeth. Last month, in what was hailed as a sea change in South Africa's stance on the disease, she publicly saluted TAC chairman Zackie Achmat for leading the campaign for treatment.

She hit out at senior members of the government, "including MECs and ministers", who promoted untested HIV-Aids remedies.

She acknowledged that South Africa had been "severely embarrassed" by criticism of its "beetroot and garlic stand" at the International Aids Conference in Toronto, Canada.

Towards the end of the month, she became the highest-ranking ANC member of government to publicly take an HIV test, which she did with her husband and the younger of her two sons at a rural clinic in KwaZulu-Natal.

And last week she tackled Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang head-on, accusing them of being party to "confusing messages [about HIV-Aids treatment] coming from the very top".

Madlala-Routledge said in a recent interview that the values she tried to live by were "honesty, truth, integrity, commitment and courage".

It remains to be seen whether those qualities will be enough to ensure her political survival. - Sapa


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