Spat mars HIV efforts in Mtubatuba

An organisation that was launched a few weeks ago in northern KwaZulu-Natal by Charlize Theron, with support from Oprah’€™s Angels Network and the US government, had been asked by the traditional authority in the area to stop its operations.


In early August, the Mpukunyoni Traditional Council took a resolution that Mpilonhle ‘€œis not allowed and must not continue with its operation and functions in the Mpukunyoni areas of jurisdiction’€.


According to the traditional council, Mpilonhle ‘€“ which offers mobile health screening and computer training for school children ‘€“ started to work in the area without seeking the council’€™s approval.


But more importantly, according to the council’€™s resolution, there is a ‘€œbitter fight’€ between Mpilonhle and a large local research institute, the Africa Centre, and the two ‘€œmust resolve their differences first before Mpilonhle could be allowed’€.


Mpukunyoni is the largest of four traditional authority areas in the Hlabisa area, while the Africa Centre was set up 10 years ago by the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), the Medical Research Council and the UK based charity, the Wellcome Trust.


The Africa Centre, which in the past year has become part of UKZN’€™s College of Health Sciences, employs almost 400 people and has an annual budget in the region of R60-million. Its work includes support for HIV antiretroviral treatment in the district, and HIV prevention and demographic research.


Since the Mpukunyoni Traditional Council took its resolution against Mpilonhle, the local inkosi and council chairperson, MM Mkwanzai, has died.


His deputy, Councillor MC Zungu, says that Mpilonhle has ‘€œdefied the traditional authority council’€ by going ahead with its launch.


‘€œ[Mpilonhle director Dr Michael] Bennish was present at the meeting on 2nd August where the resolution was taken. In any normal situation, a person would respect the decision but make an appeal. Mpilonhle hasn’€™t made any appeal against the decision, but has just continued doing what it is doing,’€ says Zungu.


‘€œIt is not right that people with academic grades should use our community in their conflict. A solution must be found between these two organisations because it is confusing the community.’€


A recent Zululand Observer editorial described Mpilonhle as a ‘€œduplicate operation’€ of the Africa Centre, and added that ‘€œproper homework and background checks’€ should have been done before the organisation’€™s launch.


The controversy hinges around Mpilonhle’€™s executive director, US citizen Dr Michael Bennish, who was head of the Africa Centre for six years.

Tall, talkative and often charming, Bennish provokes strong reactions ‘€“ either positive or negative ‘€“ in the people he works with.


While at the Africa Centre, Bennish was renowned for extravagance. He used donor funds to buy a luxurious ‘€œguest house’€ in Umhlanga Rocks that he often lived in and   even increased the swimming pool’€™s size to suit his needs.


He also travelled extensively and stayed in some of the finest hotels in the US, including during a trip to Boston made two days before the end of his contract.


Many believe that Bennish was bitter that his contract with the Africa Centre was not renewed and has set up Mpilonhle to undermine the centre, drawing most of his staff from the centre’€™s ranks.


Dr Jimmy Whitworth, head of Wellcome Trust’€™s International Activities, says that after an organisational review in 2005, Bennish’€™s contract was not renewed.


‘€œWe felt that Mike Bennish had taken the Africa Centre as far as he could and it was time to find a new director  with a new set of skills to guide it in the next phase,’€ says Whitworth.


‘€œWe would have hoped that, when the time came to part ways, the old director would have the good grace to move in a different direction. But this hasn’€™t been the case.


‘€œMost definitely there has been resentment on his part. It appears that the actions he has been taking have not been in the interests of the Africa Centre.


‘€œThis has been a bit of a surprise and a disappointment as we would have thought he would have been proud of the achievements of the Africa Centre and would not have wanted to undermine these.’€


Professor Wim Sturm, Dean of UKZN’€™s Medical School, said he had personally written to Bennish to ask him to move to another area but he had not replied.


‘€œIt is well recognised that good quality population-based behavioural research can only have reliable conclusions if nothing else happens in the area that will interfere with the research outcomes,’€ said Sturm.


‘€œWhat Mpilonhle is doing, it could do anywhere else in the country. By setting up in this area, it is being obstructive to the Africa Centre’€™s research.

‘€œBennish’€™s contract with the Africa Centre was terminated because of the insufficient output and a number of other factors. It is unclear whether he is doing this out of spite.’€


However, Bennish refused to speak on the record about his clashes with the Africa Centre claiming that whatever conflict existed was being driven by the centre’€™s new director, Professor Marie Louise Newell.


‘€œNo, no. We’€™re not prepared to talk about the Africa Centre. You need to judge Mpilonhle on the work it does,’€ said Bennish.


At present, Mpilonhle is working in four schools in the Umkhanyakude district, and giving many learners the chance to work on computers for the first time in their lives while also offering health screening, HIV counselling and testing.


‘€œIt’€™s for the first time I am working on a computer. It’€™s very nice,’€ said Mandlankosi Mfekayi, a 21-year-old Grade Nine learner at Nkosana High School in Mtubatuba.


But while the learners tap away at Mpilonhle’€™s computers, the tension between the two organisations has even reached up into the Zulu royal family.


King Goodwill Zwelithini is a staunch supporter of the Africa Centre while his daughter, Princess Nandi Zulu, is employed by Mpilonhle.


The king has ordered his daughter to withdraw from Mpilonhle but to no avail, according to impeccable sources.


But while the Africa Centre has the support of the king, the university and various local heavyweights, Bennish has also secured letters of support of a number of influential people. These include Dr N Ndlovu, general manager of HIV/AIDS in Premier Sbu Ndebele’€™s office and Dr Cassius Lubisi, Superintendent General of Education in the province.


However, his closest ally, Umkhanyakude district mayor LM Mthombeni is currently under investigation after a forensic audit revealed widespread irregularities including the unauthorized purchase of a Mercedes Benz and accepting large financial gifts from various companies, according to the Zululand Observer.


Those who support Bennish say that the conflict is based on professional jealousy and turf protection and that, given the immense need in the impoverished area, there is space for both organisations to operate.


‘€œIn a normal environment, we would complement each other. But the organisation has never come to us to explain what it is doing,’€ explains Mdu Mahlinza, the Africa Centre’€™s Community Liaison Manager.


‘€œThe Africa Centre has a proven track record. We have a number of research programmes, including a youth intervention programme and have donated computers to schools.


‘€œWe have a community advisory board, elected by the traditional structures, that comes here and we discuss serious scientific questions with them. They decide whether the research we do is suitable and how best it should be done,’€ adds Mahlinza.


Newell, the Africa Centre’€™s new director, was reluctant to be drawn into a spat with Bennish or Mpilonhle.


However, she said that she would prefer the two organisations to work in different areas as the Africa Centre was in the process of designing an intervention at 40 schools in the Hlabisa sub-district aimed at testing which HIV prevention methods worked best for school children.


‘€œIt is very difficult to achieve behaviour change, especially in the long term. This needs a comprehensive approach. We have devised an intervention based on three years’€™ worth of research with local young people that is going to involve teachers and parents as well.


‘€œWe can’€™t do this in schools where other methods have been introduced that are not evidence-based or part of the evaluation,’€ said Newell.

‘€œWhat we hope at the end of the trial is to have clearly established what youth HIV prevention methods work, and in this way benefit not only South Africa but Africa as well.’€


But with Mpilonhle planning to expand rapidly into other schools, it seems evident that the conflict between itself and the Africa Centre is likely to escalate.


Both organisations have substantial budgets and backers and cannot be wished away.


Professor Nicoli Nattrass, Director of the University of Cape Town’€™s AIDS and Society Research Unit, described the conflict as ‘€œan unedifying squabble’€.


‘€œThiss illustrates why we need better co-ordination of donor funding. It is absurd to see a new intervention undermining an existing one and causing tension in the community, especially when there is such a pressing need for project support elsewhere in the country,’€ said Nattrass.

The traditional authority’€™s Zungu says he ‘€œis not sure if what Mpilonhle are doing is development because they are just having events at schools’€.

Nonetheless, he believes that Mpilonhle should only work in areas where the Africa Centre is not working as ‘€œwe never want a situation where people are fighting’€.


Meanwhile, the Africa Centre’€™s Mahlinza says people in the area may well have to decide the matter for themselves: ‘€œWe don’€™t have jurisdiction over people. The community will have to decide for themselves what brings more value. If Mpilonhle interrupts our work, people will have to choose.’€


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