Exposed: R6m Aids scandal

By Lynne Altenroxel Time of article published Nov 28, 2002

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Millions of rands from the Aids budget of one of the provinces hardest hit by the epidemic have been frittered away.

The money has been spent on soccer matches, plays, prayer days, and a local chief whose unregistered "charity" organisation requested just over R1-million to build traditional dwellings on his farm.

Other money has been given to a company which does not exist and to another company which lists a non-existent street address.

Despite the overwhelming lack of health facilities for Aids patients in the province, the Mpumalanga health department has spent about one-third of its Aids budget (over R6-million) on the plays, soccer matches, prayer days and other events.

According to department spokesperson Dumisani Mlangeni, all these activities were aimed at heightening awareness about HIV/Aids, particularly among the youth.

The Mpumalanga health department's Aids budget for this year is R3,8-million, supplemented by R15,6-million in conditional grants from the national Health Department.

The conditional grants are allocated to provinces by the national health department only for specific projects.

Conditional grants may only be used for HIV testing, the provision of care for terminally ill Aids patients, and for giving HIV-positive pregnant women anti-Aids drugs, such as Nevirapine, to prevent them from passing the virus on to their babies.

Problems in Mpumalanga's public health service include shortages of basic medication and a lack of staff.

According to one health-care worker, staff shortages are so acute that some doctors in the province tend to between 200 and 250 patients daily - a far cry from the 45-a-day ideal.

One doctor said that, apart from running out of specialised wound dressings for three months at a time, the hospital where he worked occasionally had no running water for two to three days.

"There are times when the electricity runs out and the generator fails to kick in," the doctor said, adding that a generator was supposed to start up within 30 seconds of a power failure to avoid patients on electrical equipment such as ventilators being placed at risk.

Another doctor described how the health service had deteriorated since 1999, when Health MEC Sibongile Manana was appointed.

"People are afraid to speak. They are afraid to take action against people who are not working," the doctor said.

Evidence of a lack of services is also apparent in departmental documentation.

Although the province has been hard hit by the HIV epidemic, for example, one Health Department business plan for this financial year states that only 21 sites offer HIV testing. According to the document, 49 sites have been identified to provide HIV tests, but less than half are operational, "mostly because the other sites do not have the required testing kits".

The latest HIV statistics show that Mpumalanga's HIV-infection rate is the second highest in the country, after KwaZulu Natal. One in three pregnant Mpumalanga women tests HIV-positive.

Politically speaking, Manana is accountable to the public for the department's activities.

However, according to the Public Finance Management Act, the accounting officer of a relevant government department is responsible for the way money is spent. The act prohibits "unauthorised expenditure, an irregular expenditure, or a fruitless and wasteful expenditure".

The accounting officer for the Mpumalanga health department is the department head, Riena Charles.

Earlier this year, Manana took it upon herself to assume responsibility for the HIV/Aids directorate, including its finances.

On July 19, she wrote to the province's chief director of health services, who was responsible for the provincial HIV/Aids directorate, stating that it "will be reporting directly to the head of department (Charles) and myself (Manana) henceforth" .

The department has denied that it used money from the conditional grant to finance the Aids plays - although this contradicts written evidence in The Star's possession.

Its spokesperson, Mlangeni, also accused The Star of deliberately twisting facts in the questions which were faxed to him for response. The department, he added, was "not happy" about this.

However, asked in which way facts had been distorted, Mlangeni quickly ended the conversation.

"I think that's it, my dear," he said, before hanging up.

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