Virodene saga a lesson in how not to conduct affairs
THABO Mbeki's embarrassing and clumsy interference in the Virodene fiasco should be an object lesson to all in government on what not to do.
Britain's first ombudsman, the rough equivalent of our Office of the Public Protector, was Sir Edmund Compton. He focused on what Anthony Sampson, in his landmark work The New Anatomy of Britain, described as the classic civil service definition of maladministration. This was the failure to go through proper channels.
Failure by government and its leadership to go through the proper channels opens them up to corruption, abuse of power, bureaucratic anarchy and the charge of maladministration. They should also insist that those who deal with government go through the proper channels.
It serves no purpose to rehash the whole sorry litany of the Virodene issue. Its details are well known. But the essence of the matter is that the researchers bypassed the proper channels.
A direct appeal for funding was made to the cabinet. AIDS sufferers being treated with the drug were paraded before politicians whose combined technical knowledge of the HIV virus would fit on the back of a postcard. Or, rather, the stamp.
I suspect that the deputy president's medical knowledge extends no further than does mine. That is, not very far. It is probably limited to what he has picked up from the specialists he has consulted.
Our cabinet really should have known better. By all means encourage research into a scourge such as the HIV virus. By all means devote state funds and other resources to the fight. But by no means can the avoidance of the proper channels be condoned.
To commit this sin in the medical field is to play fast and loose with the lives of desperate, innocent victims of a terrible illness.
To allow expectations to be falsely raised is also unforgivable.
It is beyond understanding how Health Minister Nkosasana Zuma, as a medical doctor herself, could have been party to this disgraceful abuse of ministerial power.
It was her duty, in which she failed miserably, to advise her cabinet colleagues against their involvement in a delicate matter such as research into drugs that can be dangerous, and even lethal, if the proper channels are not followed.
Even when they are, such as in the case of thalidomide, matters can go tragically wrong.
It takes years in the United States for drugs to receive the approval of the Federal Drug Administration and the interference of unqualified politicians in the process would be greeted with horror and disbelief.
No responsible government allows politicians, no matter how good their intentions might be, to interfere in this way in medical research.
Zuma is the principal sinner here, and she owes the country and the medical profession an apology. Her colleagues may be ignorant of medical protocol. She is not.
What makes this sordid affair all the more tragic is the response of the politicians. Among their reactions, they vilified the Medicines Control Council, a body which enjoys, along with South African medicine generally, a high international reputation.
Some went so far as to accuse their critics of wishing AIDS on supporters of the government. This is a hideous accusation, the rantings of a bitter, poisoned and twisted mentality. It can be rejected with the contempt it deserves.
However, what is important that nothing of this kind ever happens again.
It behoves President Nelson Mandela to instruct his cabinet that they are under all circumstances to follow proper procedures in whatever area they are active.
Imagine Water Affairs Minister Kader Asmal allowing the promoters of some half-baked scheme to preserve water, which the experts in his ministry had not examined thoroughly, to present their project to the cabinet in pursuit of funding.
It is, correctly, unthinkable. Let us have no more of this amateurish behaviour.