Resource centre, traditional council in bitter standoff

An organisation that was launched a few months ago in northern KwaZulu-Natal by Charlize Theron, with support from Oprah's Angels Network and the US government, has been told by the traditional authority in the area to stop its operations.

In early August, the Mpukunyoni Traditional Council took a resolution that Mpilonhle "is not allowed and must not continue with its operation and functions in the Mpukunyoni areas of jurisdiction".

According to the traditional council, Mpilonhle - which offers mobile health screening and computer training for school children - started to work in the area without seeking the council's approval.

But more importantly, according to the council's resolution, there is a "bitter fight" between Mpilonhle and a large local research institute, the Africa Centre, and the two "must resolve their differences first before Mpilonhle could be allowed".

Mpukunyoni is the largest of four traditional authority areas in the Hlabisa area. The Africa Centre was set up 10 years ago by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the Medical Research Council and the UK-based charity Wellcome Trust.

The Africa Centre, which in the past year has become part of UKZN's College of Health Sciences, employs about 400 people and has an annual budget in the region of R60million. Its work includes support for HIV antiretroviral treatment in the district, and HIV prevention and demographic research.

Since the Mpukunyoni Traditional Council took its resolution against Mpilonhle, the local inkosi and council chairperson, MM Mkwanazi, has died.

His deputy, councillor MC Zungu, says Mpilonhle has "defied the traditional authority council" by going ahead with its launch.

"Mpilonhle director Dr Michael Bennish was present at the meeting on August 2, where the resolution was taken. "In any normal situation, a person would respect the decision, but make an appeal. Mpilonhle hasn't made any appeal against the decision, but has just continued doing what it is doing," says Zungu.

"It is not right that people with academic grades should use our community in their conflict. A solution must be found between these two organisations because it is confusing the community."

A recent Zululand Observer editorial described Mpilonhle as a "duplicate operation" of the Africa Centre, and added that "proper homework and background checks" should have been done before the organisation's launch.

The controversy hinges around Mpilonhle's executive director, US citizen Dr Bennish, who was head of the Africa Centre for six years.

Tall, talkative and often charming, Bennish provokes strong reactions - either positive or negative - in the people he works with.

"This has been a bit of a surprise and a disappointment, as we thought he would have been proud of the achievements of the Africa Centre and would not have wanted to undermine these.

"Professor Wim Sturm, Dean of UKZN's Medical School, said he had written to Bennish to ask him to move to another area, but he had not replied.

"It is well recognised that good quality population-based behavioural research can only have reliable conclusions if nothing else happens in the area that will interfere with the research outcomes," said Sturm.

"What Mpilonhle is doing, it could do anywhere else in the country. By setting up in this area, it is being obstructive to the Africa Centre's research.

"Bennish's contract with the Africa Centre was terminated because of the insufficient output and a number of other factors. It is unclear whether he is doing this out of spite."

However, Bennish refused to speak on the record about his clashes with the Africa Centre.

"No, no. We're not prepared to talk about the Africa Centre. You need to judge Mpilonhle on the work it does," said Bennish.

Mpilonhle is working in four schools in the Umkhanyakude district and giving many pupils the chance to work on computers for the first time, while offering health screening, HIV counselling and testing.

But while the pupils tap away at Mpilonhle's computers, the tension between the two organisations has reached the Zulu royal family.

King Goodwill Zwelithini is a staunch supporter of the Africa Centre, while his daughter, Princess Nandi Zulu, is employed by Mpilonhle. - Health e-news