Manto cared for her people

WHEN I heard of the death of former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang my heart sank.

WHEN I heard of the death of former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang my heart sank.

Not necessarily because I thought her death was unexpected but because I never got a chance to visit her while she was unwell.

At one stage I was driven to her home in Waterkloof, Pretoria, where I met members of her team - Charity Bhengu and Sibani Mngadi. As fate would have it, when we arrived her doctors had made a decision not to allow visitors because she needed to rest.

My relationship with the former minister was special and at one stage we even became sworn enemies because I had decided to put my life on the line with millions of people living with HIV who could not access antiretroviral treatment.

On three fateful occasions I was under the oxygen mask, on the verge of death, and still I refused to take antiretroviral drugs in solidarity with those who were not as privileged as I was.

At the time we were both members of the South African National Aids Council and we would spend hours debating on issues that had an impact on the lives of millions of our people.

It is history now that our sacrifices were not in vain. We had recorded a number of life-saving victories when I became convinced that the time was right to take my medicine again.

Having said that, Tshabalala-Msimang was charming, honest, respectful and sensitive person.

She deeply cared for her people, including me. After I was discharged from hospital she paid me an unexpected visit at my home. She assured me that the government was ready to roll out treatment, that food parcels would be given to the poor along with such medication.

Most importantly, social grants for people living with HIV had been authorised. We held hands, we cried and prayed together. She kept her word.

When I got married on the March 11 2006 she spent three hours waiting patiently in the Kliprivier hall while my wife and I took pictures at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens.

She sat next to Chriselda Kananda. She laughed out loud and whispered softly in my ear: "You are the only one who could make sure that I shared the podium with the leader of the Treatment Action Campaign Mark Heywood."

What stands out in my infected mind is that every time I was about to launch an attack on her, either on the phone or in meetings, she would calmly say "we-Lucky ungakhohlwa ukuthi ngiwunyoko" (loosely translated this means don't forget that I am your mother).

When she learnt that I was divorced after just more than two years she called me and said: "At least, you are still married to your people."

In all our fights, debates and our struggle we never lost respect for each other.