S Africa parliament backs defiant health minister

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CAPE TOWN, Oct 18 (Reuters) South Africa's parliament rejected a motion by the opposition today for an investigation into whether controversial Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was fit to hold her job.

President Thabo Mbeki has ignored repeated calls to sack Tshabalala-Msimang, dubbed ''Dr. Beetroot'' by her opponents for advocating certain foods as frontline treatments for HIV/AIDS.

James Ngculu, the ruling African National Congress' (ANC) chairman of the parliament's health committee, accused the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) of trying to undermine the integrity of the minister, who has infuriated AIDS activists.

''Put crudely, we are being requested to allow one of us to be savaged by hyenas in the garb of the DA, the leaders of the right-wing in our country,'' he told parliament.

''Given the frivolity and opportunism of the motion it should never be allowed.'' The motion was rejected by a large majority.

Mbeki sparked public outcry in August when he fired the health minister's deputy, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, on grounds of insubordination.

She has won praise from AIDS activists for her outspoken approach in fighting the HIV epidemic, which has infected an estimated 12 percent of South Africa's 47 million people.

In support of the motion, DA MP Sandra Botha accused the minister of neglecting her duties at the expense of South Africans suffering from HIV/AIDS.

She questioned whether the Department of Health's approach to HIV/AIDS can be defended, ''even though it has cost the lives of tens of thousands of citizens of South Africa by delaying the roll-out of specifically registered medicine while supporting quack remedies and practitioners''.

After Madlala-Routledge was sacked, AIDS activists and the opposition raised new questions about Mbeki's commitment to tackling the problem, despite a vow by his government to open a new front in the war on AIDS.

Newspapers ran critical reports alleging Tshabalala-Msimang had a questionable past, accusations the minister's supporters said were designed to ruin her.

The DA motion pointed to one of those reports, noting ''the Minister of Health was convicted of theft in 1976 or thereabouts while employed at the Athlone Hospital in Botswana''.

The Ministry of Health has rejected the allegations as ''false, speculative and bizarre''. It criticised the DA motion, which called for an ad hoc committee to investigate whether Tshabalala-Msimang was fit to hold office, and called the decision a vote of confidence in the minister.

''This is yet another failed attempt by the DA to undermine the integrity of the Minister and the progress that government is making in improving the health of the South African population,'' it said in a statement.

Reuters RSA RN2323

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