Argh! As if the people of South Africa don't have enough bullshit to deal with, now, after enduring cultural stigmas and idiotic HIV-denying politicians, they must also figure out if they received or used one of 20 million defective condoms recalled this week. Distributed under names like Ultramour, Positions and Randy Rat (sexy!), the potentially problematic condoms were part of the government's ongoing campaign to prevent the spread of AIDS (over 5.5 million of South Africa's citizens are already infected with HIV). Instead, they may have done quite the opposite.
Aren't there tests to see if these things work? Well, sure, that's how they know the condoms are defective: They failed tests for strength, pressure and lubrication. The problem was not a flaccid testing procedure so much as a slippery government official, who is now accused of taking bribes from the manufacturers (some of whose employees also face criminal charges). Of course, fraud and corruption can occur in any country, in relation to all sorts of business transactions (even fancy Italian olive oil), but it's hard not to see 20 million leaky love gloves as endemic of a larger hole in the system.
Indeed recent events suggest that South Africa's official response to the AIDS crisis is still corrupted by more than the odd official on the take. Earlier this month President Thabo Mbeki -- the world's most famous AIDS denier -- fired Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the woman who pushed for accelerating the distribution of free antiretroviral drugs and criticized Mbeki's bizarre response to the epidemic. (Currently only 200,000 of South Africa's HIV/AIDS patients receive the drugs, despite a national campaign launched in 2003.) Adding insult to injury, the government has also begun pursuing Madlala-Routledge for money, "to collect outstanding debts" she didn't know she had.
Wednesday Madlala-Routledge's firing provoked a protest in Cape Town by hundreds of AIDS activists. Madlala-Routledge and her supporters claim the firing was related to her nemesis, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who recently returned from medical leave after undergoing a liver transplant. Derided as "Dr. Beetroot" for her recommendations that AIDS patients eat more garlic, lemon and beet roots in place of conventional drugs, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has been the whispering Iago to Mbeki's Othello for years. And last weekend yet another scandal ignited calls for Tshabalala-Msimang's dismissal. Back in 1976, when she was superintendent of a hospital, she was convicted of stealing a patient's watch and other property, dismissed from her job and reportedly treated for kleptomania. According to news reports, Mbeki knew about the conviction when he appointed her and continues to defend her honor now.
What does all this have to do with women? For me, it's one of those stories I find hard to stomach, in part because it upsets my naive fantasies about women in power. Here are two women in positions of authority who could save millions of lives -- and the one with more power seems better suited to a bed at a lunatic asylum than a seat in Parliament. It also reminds me of the perverse uses of feminism -- or any identity politics for that matter. Last week the ANC Women's League portrayed Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as a victim, accusing the media of going after a "powerful woman" in a public position. At a moment when South Africa has a generation of ill young women leaving behind some 1.2 million AIDS orphans, and millions more citizens searching their purses for potentially lethal Randy Rats, playing the gender card isn't just shallow, it's dangerous.