By Peter Fabricius, Di Caelers & Siyabonga Mkhwanazi
While the international Aids expert and former UN special envoy on Aids in Africa has expressed great dismay at the dismissal of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Women's Day turned into a tribute to her, with people from across the political spectrum saluting her bravery and condemning her sacking.
"It's a real blow for the struggle against the pandemic," former special envoy Stephen Lewis said on Thursday.
It's a setback for the people in South Africa who felt their government had turned the corner on Aids and quite a shock to people outside the country who felt the same."
Lewis said he was sure that Madlala-Routledge had been fired mainly because of her criticism of the government and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang over Aids policy.
"It seems the government of South Africa is determined to discredit itself in the eyes of the international community," he added.
Lewis said President Thabo Mbeki had completely overplayed his hand by firing his deputy health minister.
Madlala-Routledge was fired on Wednesday after refusing to resign her post following discussions with Mbeki on Tuesday.
Her dismissal followed leaks to the media that she had undertaken an unauthorised trip to Spain, with her son and a consultant, at a cost of R160 000.
But on Thursday, presidential spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga said Mbeki did not have to give reasons for his decision.
"The president doesn't have to provide reasons.
We are not going to undermine the constitution simply because of this case," he said.
Madlala-Routledge's dismissal was widely reported in the international media, with the British daily, The Independent, labelling Mbeki a "scandalous failure" in confronting the scourge of HIV and Aids in South Africa and saying that, with the dismissal, there were "worrying signs that the situation was about to get worse".
Cosatu also condemned the axing, calling Madlala-Routledge "without question, one of the most successful and inspirational members of the government".
The trade federation's national spokesperson Patrick Craven said all South Africans would be forever in her debt for her key role in uniting the country around a concerted campaign to prevent and treat HIV and Aids.
Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Sandra Botha said it was widely believed that sources close to Tshabalala-Msimang had set out to deliberately discredit Madlala-Routledge.
"Unfortunately, alongside the women who have made us proud, are others who are letting us all down," she said.
The Rural Doctors' Association of South Africa saluted Madlala-Routledge as a courageous woman who was "a beacon of hope".
"Her quick intellect and keen interest in the concerns of health workers set her apart in an environment that is often seen as opaque and difficult to access," the association said.
SA Communist Party spokesperson Malesela Maleka said Madlala-Routledge's dismissal raised the need for a fundamental review of "the exercise of the presidential prerogative in the context of the ANC being a broad liberation movement, a ruling party, and leader of the tripartite alliance".
On Thursday Aids activist group the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) also slammed the controversy around the deputy minister's trip to Spain as "an orchestrated attempt to justify dismissing her".
But several political analysts said that given the political tensions between Madlala-Routledge and her boss, she should have been more cautious and should have ensured that she followed procedure to the letter when she took the trip to Spain.
Independent political analyst Nhlanhla Mntaka said that although it was the prerogative of the President to employ and dismiss ministers and deputy ministers, this development would cast doubt on the President's objectivity, because there was a perception that the sacked deputy minister has been vocal and contradicted the government on HIV.
Another perception, said Mntaka, was that the president was not acting even-handedly because he did not act in a similar way when Deputy President Phumzile Malambo-Ngcuka undertook a controversial and more expensive trip to Dubai almost two years ago.
The former minister answers some questions
Professor Adam Habib of the Human Sciences Research Council also said the axing would be viewed in a negative light in many quarters.
"What will be seen is that the President is siding with the minister of health over the (sacked) deputy minister partly because of political connections and him sharing the same views (with Tshabala-Msimang)," he said.
Habib said Madlala-Routledge's sacking was likely to create serious tensions and divisions within the alliance and the ANC in the run-up to the December conference.