- South Africa's Health Minister is making headlines in Germany and locally. A German resident of South Africa had refused to sit next to Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang on a flight from Germany, accusing her of being responsible for the deaths of thousands of AIDS victims. The Minister was reported to "freak out" as she found out.
- I told the stewardess, I didn't want to sit next to her because she is responsible of the death of thousands of people in South Africa, German businessman Jens von Wichtingen told the German press. Ms Tshabalala's refusal to provide AIDS medicine preventing mother-to-child infections has made the Minister a disputed woman inside and outside South Africa.
On the Lufthansa flight between Frankfurt (Germany) and Cape Town, the two passengers were booked to sit next to each other in the business class department. Mr Wichtingen's refusal to sit next to the Minister caused the latter to explode in anger, according to several witness record.
Mr von Wichtingen says he was repeated yelled at by Minister Tshabalala, who eventually followed him to his new seat, continuing the tirade. "I was trembling of fear," he says, "as the women completely freaked out." A stewardess made a futile attempt to calm down the Minister, who, nonetheless, carried on. Only the intervention of the aircraft's captain succeeded in making Ms Tshabalala return to her seat. The rest of the flight was reported to have been peaceful.
The incident, once known, rapidly made headlines in Germany and South Africa. In Germany, the press was rather amused by the "freaking Minister", although eager to explain the disputed AIDS policies carried out by the ANC government and vigorously defended by the Health Minister.
In South Africa, on the other hand, the incident was viewed with less humour. Parts of the press demanded "respect for the Minister" while others, including the political opposition, were outraged by the Minister's lack of control and her failure to meet the situation with calm argumentation.
Several South African media presented harsh criticism over the Minister's "crude language and uncontrolled behaviour." Fellow passengers had heard Ms Tshabalala telling Mr von Wichtigen to "fuck off" and newspapers shared the passengers' disbelief in the Minister's over-reaction.
The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), made a statement saying Ms Tshabalala-Msimang should be replaced, as she was "an embarrassment" for the country. The DA has issued sharp critiques of the ANC government health policies during several years.
Other opposition parties have expressed similar positions. The United Democratic Movement (UDM) condemned the incident and found it "quite surprising that the Minister should express such indignation when confronted with a simple statement of fact that she is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of HIV/Aids sufferers." UDM spokesman Nonhlanhla Nkabinde added: "Once again, the Minister has demonstrated with her unbecoming behaviour that she is unfit to serve in Cabinet."
Stakeholders added their voice. The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), South Africa's leading AIDS organisation, agreed the Minister had acted in an unacceptable way, confronted with a feeling the German passenger shared with many South Africans. TAC has spearheaded the fight for free distribution of drugs preventing the mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
The opposition Afrikaaner newspaper 'Die Burger' also managed to have Dr Essop Pahad, Minister of the Presidency, commenting on the incident. Dr Pahad however strongly defended his colleague, saying "South Africa's political leaders deserve more respect." He turned the matter into a racial issue and said too many people did not respect black ministers, 'Die Burger' reports.
The Lufthansa incident has again cast light on South Africa's public debate on how to treat the AIDS disaster as around 12 percent of all inhabitants are infected with HIV. Although the government has been ordered by South African courts to provide AIDS drugs and international drug companies have offered free or cheap AIDS drugs, Ms Tshabalala and her Ministry still refuse to provide these drugs in a large scale.
The DA opposition repeated its position on AIDS medication in a statement earlier this week. Yet another obstacle raised by Minister Tshabalala to the provision of antiretroviral treatment had now been "literally cut down," the party says, as the British pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline had announced that it is "slashing the price of its HIV/Aids medicines for non-profit groups in poor countries by up to 47 percent."
Welcoming "this bold step by GlaxoSmithKline," the DA asks how the government could "possibly sustain its arguments against providing antiretrovirals a second longer." It was high time the debate over 'if' was replaced by discussions about 'how', the opposition party says.
Also AIDS activists are increasing their resistance to government policies. TAC activists and supporters in March decided to embark on a civil disobedience campaign. TAC protests government's "the reluctance to commit to a treatment plan, including antiretroviral medicines."
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