Controversial Mpumalanga Health MEC investigates successful AIDS NGO

Controversial Mpumalanga Health MEC investigates successful AIDS NGOMpumalanga MEC Sibongile Manana has set her sights on another successful non-governmental AIDS organisation, this time ordering an investigation into the Mpumalanga Project Support Association'€™s (MPSA) operations. ANSO THOM investigates.

Mpumalanga MEC Sibongile Manana has set her sights on another successful non-governmental AIDS organisation, this time ordering an investigation into the Mpumalanga Project Support Association’€™s (MPSA) operations. ANSO THOM investigates.

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Mpumalanga MEC Sibongile Manana has set her sights on another successful non-governmental AIDS organisation, this time ordering an investigation into the Mpumalanga Project Support Association’€™s (MPSA) operations.

This comes a mere two weeks after Manana ordered the Greater Nelspruit Rape Intervention Project (GRIP) to leave the Rob Ferreira Hospital in Nelspruit and suspended the district health manager for her involvement in GRIP.

Sources within the province say Manana seems intent on severing all ties between her department and NGOs, breaking a bond that has been established over a number of years and which led to the province’s Lydenburg district being declared the best HIV/AIDS district in the country this year.

For the past four years, Mpumalanga has been at the forefront of piloting and implementing innovative projects designed to distribute condoms, treat sexually transmitted infections and care for those infected and affected by the HI-virus in a highly focused and highly targeted manner.

But all these gains are in danger of being nullified should Manana decide also to close the Mpumalanga Project Support Association’€™s (MPSA) operations.

The MEC would only confirm this week that the “Departmental Labour Relations Section” was investigating the role of health department officials in the Mpumalanga Project Support Organisation (MPSA). Sources told Health-e that the MEC was also trying to establish who gave permission for the MPSA’€™s establishment two years ago.

Manana would not confirm whether Dr Kelvin Billinghurst, the MPSA chair and head of the HIV/AIDS and STD programme in the province, had been suspended earlier and that he had since withdrawn from all HIV/AIDS related duties.

Billinghurst had apparently been suspended for “misconduct” after supporting the work being done by the MPSA.

The MPSA was established in 1998 with the help of the national AIDS directorate, the Project Support Group in Zimbabwe and the then MEC for Health, Candice Mashego, and the head of the health department in the province.

The association’€™s major role is to provide an efficient, economical, central funding and reporting mechanism.

The MPSA currently supports 50 community-based peer education projects (960 peer educators), 28 community home-based and orphan care projects as well as three youth out-of-school peer education projects.

“There is no doubt that these projects have led to massive savings for the province with thousands of sexually transmitted infections averted,” Billinghurst said earlier this year.

An assessment estimated that 20% of the adult population in the province have regular contact with the MPSA peer education projects while an estimated 30 000 to 50 000 sexually transmitted infections may be averted because of these positive behavioral changes.

Referrals come directly to the project from the community, clinic or hospitals. Projects cost between R80 000 and R200 000 depending on their size and save the health services between R400 000 and R1-million in averted hospital costs.

The MPSA is also currently piloting the distribution of female condoms through peer education projects and is providing technical support to Swaziland for home-based care, the Eastern Cape and NorthWest for peer education and the Northern Province for both.

Manana admitted that government could not succeed if it had to work alone, but added that officials were expected to declare and apply to the department to take part in NGOs, even if they received no remuneration. Her office would not make it clear whether this also meant officials needed permission to belong to women’s organisations and church groups.

“As far as we know this is not official policy (to obtain persmission). If it is, employees were not informed,” said an Mpumalanga health official.

Mpumalanga health department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was a clear intention by Manana to sever any links with NGOs. “There is the GRIP situation, the MPSA situation and numerous other organisations that are currently being investigated.

“It is interesting to note that Careen Swart (district manager) has been fired because of allowing GRIP into the Nelspruit hospital, while another official who allowed GRIP into Temba hospital doing the same work has been made a district manager. Careen is white and performs. The other official is coloured and doesn’€™t perform. Clearly there is a lack of consistency in how the rules are being applied,” said one senior official.

GRIP has filed an injunction in the Pretoria High Court after being kicked out of Nelspuit hospital. The organisation, which started operating in April, has helped 74 rape survivors who cannot afford AZT to acquire it through donor funds.

Manana was adamant that GRIP was illegally operating from the hospital and should be closed.

Another official revealed that Manana had stated earlier that her office was going to put R2-million into NGOs and another R1-million into condoms.

“As yet this hasn’€™t happened,” the source said.

Manana declined to respond to these claims, but promised to compile a report outlining where the money had been spent. This report had not been sent at the time of going to press, despite Manana having been given 10 days in which to do so.

“We have to ask why in the face of this epidemic, the department feels the need to restructure those organisations that work,” asked an official.

In another development, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) was preparing to hand over a letter to Manana in which they state their oppostion to a chief director’€™s wife being appointed to the province’s HIV/AIDS programme.

Nehawu contends that the wife of Sophney Tshukudu, the Chief Director for Adminstration in the Mpumalanga health department, was appointed without the correct procedures being followed.

The union has threatened to strike if the response was not satisfactory. – Health-e News Service.