KZN’s newly appointed MEC for education, Peggy Nkonyeni, is dogged by her controversial five-year term as health MEC, says Anso Thom.
Durban - One of former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s right-hand women, Peggy Nkonyeni, completed a five-year stint as health MEC in KwaZulu-Natal, then as Speaker in the legislature, a term marred by allegations of serious corruption (withdrawn later), only to go full circle with last week’s announcement that she was to become the custodian of education in the province.
As she takes over the future of KwaZulu-Natal’s children, let’s remind ourselves of Peggy Nkonyeni’s career trajectory so far:
As early as 2005, barely a year after becoming KZN health MEC, Nkonyeni criticised the World Health Organisation (WHO) for failing to provide “a clear message on the role of nutrition in delaying the progression of HIV to Aids”.
During the WHO meeting, Tshabalala-Msimang had suggested that with the right diet, people with HIV could permanently delay the onset of Aids.
In 2008 Nkonyeni made headlines when she had a bruising battle with rural doctors in the province’s Umkhanyakude district.
Doctors had been trying for most of 2007 to get the provincial department to give the go-ahead for the introduction of dual therapy for the prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission.
After he had raised private funds to buy AZT for desperate patients, Manguzi Hospital doctor Colin Pfaff was charged for “wilfully and unlawfully, without prior permission of (his) superiors”, rolling out dual therapy to pregnant mothers and newborns.
After huge protests, the charges against Pfaff were withdrawn, but relations between rural doctors and the Health Department had been severely strained.
Soon afterwards, Nkonyeni visited Manguzi and made disparaging remarks about some rural doctors.
Speaking in Zulu while doing a tour, she accused rural doctors of being concerned with money, not patients. She also claimed that AZT was toxic (she would repeat this mantra many times) and that antiretroviral medication had bad side-effects, especially for children, a clear dig at Pfaff.
This so incensed one of the doctors, Mark Blaylock, that he tossed a photograph of Nkonyeni into a dustbin (an act he apologised for later). In turn, Nkonyeni used her budget speech and a number of media interviews to portray Blaylock as a racist.
In an attempt to prove her claim, she took two professors, a surgeon, a pathologist and a urologist out of their workplaces for 10 days to examine “racism, ill treatment of staff and abuse of departmental facilities by Dr Blaylock and some doctors operating at some of our rural facilities”.
The accusation that Blaylock was “racist” did not hold water as he had for years been serving the country’s poorest patients, all black, at Manguzi and Edendale hospitals.
Controversy continued to dog Nkonyeni. Earlier, in 2009, the 120-bed Dream Centre hospice was shut down.
The official explanation for the hospice’s closure was that government subsidies had been suspended because of allegations of corruption. However, it was later revealed that Nkonyeni had approached the management at the centre to run a pilot programme using an untested traditional medicine, Ubhejane. This expensive concoction was peddled by one Zeblon Gwala, a former truck driver, who claimed his ancestors had given him the recipe in a dream.
The plan was for traditional healers who were opposed to antiretroviral medication to prescribe the traditional medicine Nkonyeni had recommended.
At the time Nkonyeni had introduced Traditional Healer Organisation head Nhlavana Maseko to the centre’s management. Maseko was a controversial figure in her own right who had entered into an alliance with German vitamin seller Matthias Rath. She also frequently condemned antiretrovirals.
Nkonyeni’s plans gained a lot of traction and even led to the establishment of a University of KwaZulu-Natal task team to work with Dream Centre staff on a plan to integrate traditional and Western medicine. Gwala was a prominent member of the task team at the time.
She also hosted a small closed meeting with traditional healers, which was addressed by Tshabalala-Msimang. Delegates at the meeting were given books and pamphlets condemning ARVs and doctors who prescribed it. A number of the books were authored by Rath.
Relations between the Health Department and the Dream Centre soured dramatically after Nkonyeni’s plans were leaked and the management backed off. This was the real reason behind the closure of the centre.
Nkonyeni remained an enthusiastic supporter of Ubhejane with many reports that she encouraged HIV-positive people to take the dark herbal concoction.
In December 2008, while she was still in her post as MEC, the Scorpions arrested and charged Nkonyeni and five others with corruption, fraud and racketeering involving the unnecessary purchase of equipment at hugely inflated prices.
She later denied that she had been under pressure to sign a deal in order to ensure a donation to the ANC. A few months later Nkonyeni was appointed Speaker of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature.
The charges against her were dropped in September last year, soon after President Jacob Zuma appointed advocate Moipone Noko as the acting director of public prosecutions in the province.
After Nkonyeni had vacated the health post and new appointments had been made to key positions, the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health announced, for the first time in more than a decade, that the department had remained within its budget.
Nkonyeni had overseen a staggering overexpenditure of close to R2 billion.
Part of the turnaround plan to achieve financial compliance involved taking swift action against corrupt staff members who had embedded themselves under Nkonyeni. By the end of June, 377 cases of fraud and corruption had been recorded.
Nkonyeni is a dedicated member of the ANC and a staunch Zuma supporter. She also serves as the provincial treasurer.
There is published evidence that Aids denialism in South Africa caused the unnecessary death and suffering of millions.
These are actions for which no politician has ever been held accountable. It is also well known that KwaZulu-Natal has been one of the hardest hit provinces, with families decimated and children orphaned and infected by HIV.
Many generations will be paying the price for the state-sanctioned denialism of which Nkonyeni was an enthusiastic cheerleader.
The last thing the schoolchildren of KwaZulu-Natal need is an incompetent and denialist MEC.
* Anso Thom is responsible for special writing and media projects at SECTION27.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.