South Africa's president hailed his embattled health minister as a heroine and blasted her critics as "wild animals" in a remarkable display of support that dismayed AIDS activists demanding the dismissal of the woman who advocated beets and garlic as remedies for the disease.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate often regarded as the moral conscience of the nation, weighed into the debate about South African AIDS policy by lambasting the health ministry. In a speech late Friday, he called the ministry inefficient and said it "has presided over the vast deterioration in health standards of our land."
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has been condemned at home and abroad for her unorthodox views on the AIDS virus, which has infected an estimated 5.4 million South Africans — the highest number for any country in the world.
At news conferences, she has made plain her mistrust of antiretroviral medicines, repeatedly espousing a diet heavy on garlic, beetroot, lemon and olive oil as more effective in treating HIV/AIDS. The comments have earned her ridicule and the nicknames "Dr. Beetroot" and "Dr. Garlic."
South Africa's stand at the international AIDS conference in Canada last year included garlic and other foodstuffs, prompting international scientists to write an unprecedented joint letter of protest to President Thabo Mbeki.
For years, Mbeki has been accused of downplaying the extent of the AIDS crisis and he has steadfastly stood by his health minister.
But his weekly ANC Today online newsletter, published Friday, took his support to new heights. Mbeki said history would honor the minister as "one of the pioneer architects of a South African public health system constructed to ensure that we achieve the objective of health for all our people, and especially the poor."
"In our tradition as the ANC, we do not normally celebrate our heroes and heroines publicly, such as Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, until they have died," he wrote, referring to the ruling African National Congress. "Violating this tradition, I have now written about Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as I have because some, at home and abroad, who did nothing or very little to contribute to the immensely difficult and costly struggle to achieve our liberation, have chosen to sit as judges."
Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang have known each other for 45 years and went into exile from the apartheid government together in 1962. The minister's husband is the treasurer of the African National Congress.
Tutu lamented that "too many died unnecessarily because of bizarre theories held on high," in a thinly veiled reference to the president and his health minister.
Tutu said the heroes and heroines killed in the anti-apartheid struggle — if they were alive today — would be shocked by the devastation of HIV/AIDS which kills 900 South Africans — the equivalent of three jumbo jet crashes — every day.
"They would be distressed by the latest episodes in the saga of a Health Department that has been less than efficient and has presided over the vast deterioration in health standards of our land."
AIDS activists say Tshabalala-Msimang's promotion of untested remedies and her public pronouncements have led to confusion and undermined confidence in scientific medicine.
Nathan Geffen, policy coordinator of the Treatment Action Campaign, said Saturday that the AIDS activist movement was undeterred and would continue to press for the health minister's dismissal. The movement has demanded Mbeki respond by Sept. 7 to its detailed reasons why she must be dismissed.
Geffen listed the minister's failings: the slow provision of drugs to prevent HIV positive mothers passing on the virus to their child; delays in giving treatment to people with AIDS; and her department's failure to provide proper levels of staffing and expertise.
"The failure to manage the HIV crisis has had a knock-on effect on the management of the entire health system," Geffen told The Associated Press, citing the spread of drug resistant TB — closely associated with AIDS — as an example.
Tshabalala-Msimang was sidelined for months with ill health earlier this year. During that time, deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge joined forces with private groups and AIDS activists to draw up an ambitious five-year plan to halve the number of new infections and provide care and treatment to 80 percent of those in need by 2011.
But Mbeki last month dismissed Madlala-Routledge, ostensibly because she went on an unauthorized trip to an AIDS conference in Spain and did not work as part of a team. But AIDS activists said Madlala-Routledge was victim of a political vendetta orchestrated by her boss, the minister.
The government has accused Tshabalala-Msimang's critics of character assassination.
The 66-year-old minister underwent a liver transplant in March and The Sunday Times newspaper reported that she had jumped the transplant waiting list. The paper reported that she needed the transplant because of years of alcohol abuse.
Tshabalala-Msimang denied the allegations and successfully sued to recover her medical records on which some of the newspaper's allegations were based.
Mbeki's weekly column slammed the newspaper for intruding in her private life.
"It is obvious that those who deliberately manufactured and peddled these lies did so to argue that Manto Tshabalala-Msimang should not have been treated and should have been allowed to suffer and die," he wrote.
"Some in our society, and elsewhere in the world, seem determined to applaud this truly frightening behavior, which, in reality, belongs to wild animals," he said.