News24, 28 November 2002, Mpumalanga on the defensive over Aids budget

Nelspruit - Mpumalanga's health department battened down the hatches on Thursday and refused to comment on reports that it had squandered over 30% of the region's HIV/Aids budget on soccer matches, prayer meetings and theatre productions.

Health spokesperson Dumisani Mlangeni would only say an in-depth report in the Star newspaper was flawed and "exaggerated".

The front-page report detailed how provincial health MEC Sibongile Manana irregularly used R6 million from the HIV/Aids budget for questionable publicity campaigns while hospitals struggle to raise money for doctors or drugs.

The R6 million spending spree, The Star adds, irregularly used funds from a national government conditional grant meant solely for treating people living with HIV/Aids.

"Look, all I can say is that they got their facts wrong. Our records show we've only spent R2 million on promotional projects, and all this has been from our normal budget," said Mlangeni.

"But the media obviously has a 'deepthroat' in the department that is leaking information, so I cannot say anything more and risk being proved wrong tomorrow."

Some of the more extravagant expenditure includes a R1 million cultural village near the holiday town of Badplaas, where young school children are reportedly taught about HIV/Aids and safe sex by traditional elders.

Questions have also been asked about a R2.4 million drama programme that appears to include multiple invoicing for the same theater productions, and inflated production costs.

"Look, if there are problems, we will investigate them. But, you can't withhold money to check things like company registrations when dealing with something as urgent as HIV/Aids," said Mlangeni.

Not first brush with notoriety

The controversy is not Manana's first brush with notoriety.

The outspoken former nurse infuriated HIV/Aids activists and the medical fraternity two years ago when she described anti-retroviral drugs as 'poison' designed to kill poor black people, and banned them from all government hospitals.

Manana has since repeatedly clashed with human rights activists, firing doctors and evicting non-profit organisations that challenge her anti-retroviral ban for rape survivors.

She has also repeatedly been criticised by the medical profession and individual provincial hospital superintendents for preventing the provision of potentially life-saving anti-Aids drugs such as Nevirapine to pregnant women.

Nevirapine

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu), the SA Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) and the SA Council of Churches also accuse Manana of deliberately lying to national government and parliament about the availability of nevirapine at State hospitals.

Local TAC organiser Thembane Shabangu said the organisation had documentary proof that the province was only supplying nevirapine at two pilot hospitals, and not the 40 institutions Manana claimed in her reports to government.

"This is in defiance of the Constitutional Court's order on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/Aids," said Shabangu.

"At least three major hospitals have applied for nevirapine, but have been refused on grounds that they were not adequately prepared. We know the hospitals are prepared, and are already supplying nevirapine ourselves to Mpumalanga's largest hospital, at Philadelphia."

TAC is in the process of lodging complaint against Manana with the SA Human Rights Commission, and is demanding an urgent national government investigation into the department's financial management.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has meanwhile written to the Auditor General and Scorpions special investigative unit demanding an urgent probe and possible criminal charges.