They said potato, Madlala-Routledge said ARVs

While the new administration shuffles the ministerial pack, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is proof of a fulfilling and committed life outside the corridors of power, writes Tanya Farber

16 June 2019 - 00:11 By TANYA FARBER
Former deputy health minister and deputy speaker in the National Assembly Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. Pictures: Esa Alexander
Former deputy health minister and deputy speaker in the National Assembly Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. Pictures: Esa Alexander

As someone who has been in and out of parliamentary favour in her time, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge knows how former ministers such as Bathabile Dlamini are feeling now that they are out in the cold.

Madlala-Routledge was ousted as deputy minister of health, a job she held from 2004 to 2007, not for ineptitude - as many would cite as the reason for Dlamini's ousting - but because she was fighting on the side of science and not beetroot against the devastating HIV pandemic that swept through SA.

"I was happy to be on the side of the vulnerable and those needing state assistance and medication," she says. "That, for me, was the reward: to see the change that later happened. So, in many ways, my firing was a catalyst for good and I even felt relief. It put the issue out there in the public domain, with the whole of SA - apart from a few denialists - standing behind the fight for the provision of ARVs [antiretrovirals]."

Taking on the HIV denialists

Madlala-Routledge always seeks the good in a person, even someone perceived as an enemy, and at first hoped that she could change the HIV/Aids crisis from within the health ministry.

This was not her first executive post; in 1999 she had been asked to serve as deputy defence minister - a surprise to her because, as a pacifist, she did not believe in preparing for war.

But the call to serve as deputy to HIV-denialist health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was even more unexpected.

"I was surprised when [Thabo] Mbeki appointed me," she says, "as my stance on HIV was already known."

She knew Tshabalala-Msimang from the women's movement and shared her passion for gender equality. She hopedthey would have a good working relationship.

"She called to congratulate me and said we would meet soon to discuss our work," she says.

At first Madlala-Routledge was given a wide mandate in the ministry and led several delegations, "but things changed very quickly".

"Soon, she was doing everything to stop me from doing my work, until the staff were afraid to be seen talking to me." Next, the then president, Mbeki, called Madlala-Routledge in and instructed her to say whatever Tshabalala-Msimang was saying.

"If she said beetroot, I had to say beetroot. If she said African potato, I had to say African potato," she says.

She was nominated to travel with the minister to the World Aids Conference in Canada, only to be told at the last minute to stay home.

"I had to unpack, and she flew off, and when she got there, it was the display stand with garlic and other vegetables that she had set up - the one that caused a huge public outcry."

Madlala-Routledge was finally pushed out after a trumped-up claim that she had attended a conference in Spain "without presidential permission", something she disputes to this day.

After losing her post in the ministry, she stayed on as a member of parliament. No disciplinary hearing on the Spanish trip was ever held as "they knew they had no basis for such".

She had no regrets.

"I felt extremely supported by many people - even people I did not know who understood what I was fighting for. I especially felt supported by the Treatment Action Campaign at the time, as they were really there for me."

She carried on working on the causes that were important to her and held powerful positions in the ANC and parliament.

It was in 2009, when Jacob Zuma came to power, that Madlala-Routledge was, ironically, seen as an Mbeki loyalist and her professional life became uncomfortable.

"I didn't feel like it was a space I wanted to be in. I have never been part of a faction and that is both a weakness and a strength in politics. You won't get people willing to stand up for you, but you are seen as someone who stands by a principle rather than a faction."

Still carrying the torch for the vulnerable

Today, she is still fighting for her causes, but from outside of the walls of parliament, working to abolish sex trafficking in SA.

She hopes to work with the new cabinet towards this goal, which has been her focus for almost a decade.

In 2010, cognisant of how the Fifa Soccer World Cup in SA would stimulate human trafficking, Madlala-Routledge started Embrace Dignity, an organisation that seeks to end "prostitution, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse".

"I see myself as an activist. Even when I was in parliament, I called myself an activist. I believe our democracy still needs people who will continue to advocate from either within or outside of governance."

She says there is "life after politics" and now feels free to "engage with people at a deeper level and catch up on suspended projects".

One of these is her forthcoming trip to the US, where she will have a short residency at a Quaker college, lecturing about her experience of SA's peaceful transition to democracy.

"I also go back to my roots often and support people in my community in KwaZulu-Natal, where I am from. My life is full and I am involved in a lot of activities," she says.

Not least of these is her obvious adoration for her two sons, Simon, 30, who lives in London and recently gave Madlala-Routledge a grandchild, and Martin, 37, who lives in Johannesburg.

Death of comrades a stark reminder

Always propelling her forward to stand up for what's right are the personal losses she experienced during the struggle for freedom. She is particularly haunted by the loss of four very gentle people whose deaths spurred her on to keep fighting.

"I feel ancient when I even think about the 25 years since 1994, but even more so when I think about the earlier years when I joined the struggle," she says.

"I joined the student movement in the '70s during the time of Steve Bantu Biko and it was a very important period of my life."

She had met Biko during high school, but it was at the medical school at the University of Natal that he became like a brother to her.

"I was invited to meet him because I was going to study medicine and he was already in third year. I spent a whole year there under his wing, but then I failed with my studies and was kicked out."

She enrolled at Fort Hare University for a science degree and joined the South African Students' Organisation, which Biko had formed after feeling frustrated that the student movement was in the hands of white liberals and not those under the boot of apartheid.

"When I was at Fort Hare, some of us travelled almost every weekend to visit him in King William's Town at his mother's house as he had been banned and was restricted to the town."

Then came the horrifying news of his death in 1977.

"When I heard that Biko was killed, I was in deep shock because he was someone I knew not only as a leader but also as a brother from that year we had spent together at university."

Madlala-Routledge, herself an extremely gentle but passionate soul, recalls the deaths of three other political activists that affected her very deeply because they had always treated other people with such humanity.

One was Chris Hani.

"He was so humane and friendly and made you feel important. He always remembered people's names. It was a huge loss."

Then there was the gruesome death of her friend, Toto Dweba. He was from the Eastern Cape and the two had been close friends.

"He was this big gentle guy, and he taught me how to drive," she recalls with a wry smile.

He was found dead in KwaZulu-Natal. Both his hands had been chopped off by his killers.

The next big loss was of human rights lawyer Victoria Mxenge in 1985. Madlala-Routledge had worked closely with her, and was devastated by her assassination.

In 1979, she had joined the ANC's underground structures to "pick up the struggle where Biko had left off", and the other deaths over the ensuing years would strengthen her resolve to keep going with even more passion than before.

Underground and in the government

Nothing prepared her for the "surprise" awaiting her in 1999 when she received news she had been appointed as deputy minister of defence.

Madlala-Routledge is a committed Quaker, and says: "We do not believe in war, nor the preparation for war - and here I was as a leader in the department of defence!"

But it was one of her most enjoyable experiences. "I learnt very quickly that the military responds very positively to a leader who respects them."

There is one anecdote that still makes her laugh: "The first thing I wanted to know was how they reacted to my appointment. I asked a former MK [Umkhonto weSizwe] commander who was now in the higher echelons of the South African National Defence Force how the generals had reacted to my appointment.

"He replied, 'You know, ma'am, they are not worried at all about you being a pacifist. What really bothers them is that you're a woman.'

"I thought that was funny and came to the conclusion that they felt they could change me from being a pacifist but not from being a woman."

As it turns out, Madlala-Routledge's pacifism is as immutable as her womanhood.

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