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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 August 25; 335(7616): 364.
PMCID: PMC1952506

South Africa's health minister rebuffs allegations of alcoholism

South Africa's controversial health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, is facing sustained embarrassing accusations in the media, including allegations of alcoholism, bizarre behaviour in a hospital, and an earlier episode of theft, which, it is claimed, led to her being declared a prohibited immigrant in Botswana.

The allegations have been printed by South Africa's largest and most powerful weekly newspaper, the Sunday Times, which has run the stories over the past two weeks. The most recent allegations, run under the headline “Manto: a drunk and a thief,” claimed that the minister was an alcoholic and that this was the reason for her having had to have a liver transplant in March this year, rather than the diagnosis that was made public of her having autoimmune hepatitis.

The Sunday Times also alleged that the president, Thabo Mbeki, put pressure on the team to provide the liver and perform the transplant—an allegation that the president has denied. The newspaper also claimed that Dr Tshabalala-Msimang, when working in Botswana in the 1970s, was found guilty in a court in Lobatse of stealing from patients in the hospital in which she was medical superintendent, in consequence of which she was declared a prohibited immigrant.

The head of the team that performed the transplant, Jeff Wing, said that the minister had a serious disorder that had necessitated the transplant. He has refused to confirm the reports that her liver may have been damaged by drinking and has consistently defended the statements first made at the time of the transplant. Professor Wing also said that she did not “jump the queue” for receiving a liver.

The minister has denied the allegations of alcoholism and she continues to have the support of the president.

The president's spokesman, Mukone Ratshitanga, said that the president would look at any evidence brought to him and decide on any action after assessing it. Mr Ratshitanga expressed exasperation at what he saw as a particularly vindictive campaign that was aimed ultimately at the president himself.

An earlier article published in the Sunday Times alleged that the minister had held drinking parties in a Cape Town hospital while having an operation to her shoulder in 2005. This allegation has also been denied.

Despite the denials, so far legal action has been concerned solely with the minister's confidential medical records, a copy of which seems to have found its way to the Sunday Times. An urgent court interdict requires the Sunday Times to run no further allegations derived from the medical records pending the outcome of a full hearing that is due to take place this week.

The disclosures and allegations in the newspaper follow the president's firing of the deputy minister of health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, for an apparently unauthorised trip abroad, and, as the president said subsequently, her behaviour as a “lone ranger” who would not act as part of a team (see BMJ 2007;335:321, 18 Aug doi: 10.1136/bmj.39307.658021.DB). He was badly stung by an immediate outpouring of indignation and sympathy for the deputy minister among trade unions, political parties, doctors, and AIDS activists. MsMadlala-Routledge had reportedly been urging a more conventional approach to the AIDS pandemic.

The independent political analyst Steven Friedman was quoted as saying that if the newspaper's allegations were wrong the health minister should sue for defamation; but if she did not the public was entitled to draw its own conclusions.

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