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Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and the Breath of Fresh Air August 16, 2007

Posted by Andreas in News, Politics, Society, South Africa.

My good friend Peter wrote this piece on the Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge debacle. I really like it, so here it is as a guest post:

The events of the past few days have made me realise that fresh air has been in short supply in South African politics these past few years. We got great gales of it in April 1994 when the people came out en masse to vote in the first ever democratic elections. The air then positively crackled for months, nay years, with the sheer possibility of everything. In air like that one could imagine seeing forever.


During recent years, however, the air thickened – not suddenly but gradually, imperceptibly. The open debate and difference we celebrated in the early years of the ANC government were quietly stifled. We gasped at individual examples of the government’s refusal to brook dissent within its ranks but we barely noticed as the bright flowers of mutual care and social invention in the service of others suffocated in the corner while the grand train of government whooshed past, sucking to itself all the oxygen of available public attention.


The stench of corruption, on the other hand, had become hard to avoid. We’d all become accustomed to hold our breath when entering certain conversations or turning on the news, to the point where we were at risk of passing on to future generations the ability to seal one’s nostrils instinctively in the presence of government officials.


No – breathing was becoming tough in Mbeki’s South Africa. Until today.


To understand the power of what has happened, first a little background. Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Deputy Minister of Defence from 1999 to 2004 and of Health since then, is a hard-working, head-down, loyal member of the ANC – and, like many other ANC MPs, a senior member of the South African Communist Party at the same time. Nobody doubts that she deserves whatever prominence and leadership she has been accorded by virtue of her service to the anti-apartheid cause under harsh circumstances and in particular her unflagging advocacy of women’s rights.


She also happens to have a quality of personal integrity whose depths – at least in the public domain – are only now being properly fathomed. Though she has never been accorded much in the way of limelight, serving quietly behind more public Ministers, she has won the loyalty and devotion of most of those who have worked with her or come to know her. Then at the end of last year, with the widely unpopular Health Minister in hospital for a serious operation, Nozizwe was granted just enough space in which to make it clear to the public – long angered by the government’s half-hearted response to the AIDS epidemic – that she believed progress was too slow and promptly set about working with the NGOs to speed things up. The public made her a heroine and she very nearly lost her job.


Then a month ago she paid an unannounced visit to a hospital in one of the poorest parts of the country and was clearly shocked by what she saw. In particular she referred to the loss of over 250 babies in the past year – many through lack of resources or negligence – as “a national emergency”. Most ordinary citizens knew instinctively she was right. Mbeki and his Health Minister set out to declare her wrong. Once again she must have felt her bosses’ hot breath on her neck.


So when, last week-end, a national newspaper trumpeted that she was in hot water with the President for having undertaken a trip to Madrid with her 19-year-old son and an advisor from her office that the President had not authorised, my own and many others’ reaction was to think, “How foolish. She should have been more careful. She must have known the knives have long been out for her.” It seemed out of character for her to flout the regulations and the principles of good governance, but we’ve become so used to our politicians letting us down that we were prepared to believe that even she might have become the latest addition to that sorry list.


Then on Wednesday night we heard that, after refusing Mbeki’s request that she resign, she was fired. At last the game was out in the open. Public outrage erupted. Yet there were still nagging doubts as to whether she had in fact done wrong. Surely Mbeki, whose Cabinet is renowned as a place of forgiveness, where indiscretion or incompetence are rarely ever met with dismissal, would not fire her without due cause?


How wrong we were – and how happy we are to have been wrong! In a move that in itself signaled a fundamental break with the closed-rank tradition of the ANC, she called a press conference for today (Friday), to tell her version of events and answer questions. How the President and his Health Minister must have squirmed as they sat by their radios.


What did the public get? Fresh air. Great buckets of it. She threw open the doors and let the breeze of truth and the fragrance of accountability waft through the land. Here is a woman who, after serving eight years under a centralizing, all-controlling President, is not afraid of him. Rather, she trusts the people and her own sense of what is good for all of us. So she challenged Mbeki and his cohorts to explain exactly how they came by certain leaked documents from her office and how it was that she was told she had presidential clearance to fly just hours before a letter of refusal left Mbeki’s office, causing her to turn around at Madrid airport as soon as she became aware of it and, quite correctly, fly straight home again.


Using moderate language and in her steady, warm voice she let us understand that the knives had indeed been out for her for a while and that doing her work had become almost impossible. As she spoke and we listened, courage once more stalked the land, unlocking hearts, minds and lungs. Meanwhile, in the noses of our imagination we could detect the President starting to sweat. Was it possible, after so many years, that our generally dapper Emperor was not fully clothed?


Every great fairy story has a moment like this, when a table is turned and we the people, too long asleep, awaken to the call of one whose heart is pure. We suddenly remember we are glorious in our humanity, that our gift is to be brave and virtuous. We just needed a heroine to name the wicked step-mother’s poisoned apple for what it is. We knew it all along – we always do. But in our hearts we were timid and we allowed the heavy, pompous air that drifts down from the castle to lull us into lethargy.


As night falls on the Kingdom there is a wildness in the wind. Everything has changed.


Simons Town, South Africa
Friday 10th August 2007


1. Enid - August 16, 2007

Beautifully written.

2. Walton - August 16, 2007

By far the best thing I have read on the subject, and on South African politics in ages. Where’s Peter’s blog?

3. Andreas - August 16, 2007

Walton, he hasn’t got a blog at the moment, but I think I can twist his rubber arm…

4. Ian - August 16, 2007

Beautifully written, I agree. I’m so glad you published it, not having pieces like this online is like Shakespeare in his day deciding to stick to oral tradition!

I’m not sure whether the wildness in the wind is strong enough, or sustainable enough, to really blow things over or not, but let’s hope.

5. Space Cadet - September 13, 2007

Reading this a month later I must agree on how well written and meaningful this post is. But looking at the silence on Nozizwe now and the ever Imperial response from the Emperor, his cabinet, his TV Studio and his Minister of Death and Disease, I can only hope that the fresh air is being wound up into a hurricane for the conference in December

6. Iris Kiewiet - September 27, 2007

It is great to read about Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. I really hope all the best for her and the people in South Africa. When this news was happening, I made an animation about it for a Dutch online newspaper. It is still in their archives.

7. Andreas - September 28, 2007

Thanks very much Iris. Great work.

8. Iris Kiewiet - October 7, 2007

HI Andreas,
how is Nozizwe doing? After the news bursts that she also had to pay back her flight expenses, I couldnt find any more news on her well being.

Thank you for taking the time to watch the animation.


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