South African President Thabo Mbeki has axed his deputy health minister who questioned the national AIDS policy, a move experts on Thursday warned could have a "deadly" impact in the HIV-blighted nation.
Mbeki, who attracted flak some years ago for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and who is seen to be sensitive to criticism that the government is not doing enough to combat the pandemic, sacked Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge on Wednesday.
"It's true that Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was sacked ... by the president," Mbeki's spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga said on Thursday.
Although no official reason was given for her sacking, observers said it could be linked to her open criticism that the government's policies on HIV and AIDS were not far-reaching enough.
Madlala-Routledge is no stranger to controversy and is believed to be in Mbeki's bad books after she advocated a review of health policies and clashed with her boss, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
Tshabalala-Msimang has been a major target of criticism both at home and abroad over her approach to AIDS, earning the name "Dr Beetroot" for touting the use of vegetables to help combat the disease.
But the feisty minister, who has turned a deaf ear to calls for her resignation by AIDS activists and some opposition members, is viewed by many to have Mbeki's full support.
Experts and politicians on Thursday roundly slammed the decision.
South Africa's main AIDS lobby group, the "Treatment Action Campaign" (TAC), which forced the government to provide free antiretroviral treatment to sufferers, said Mbeki had made a huge mistake.
"This is a dreadful error of judgement that will harm public healthcare and especially the response to the HIV epidemic," TAC said in a statement. "It indicates that the president still remains opposed to the science of HIV and to appropriately responding to the epidemic."
South Africa's main labour coalition, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), in its strongly-worded statement said that Mbeki's decision to sack the minister had put all the progress achieved under her "in jeopardy" and raised "fears that the National Strategic Plan [against HIV/AIDS] will come to nothing."
"This dismissal also raises the danger that it is part of a broader drive to purge all political opponents from their positions. It will deepen a culture of sycophancy," COSATU said.
South African media reports however suggested that Madlala-Routledge had been fired because of a recent unauthorized trip she took to an AIDS conference in Spain.
The reports said that Madlala-Routledge "defied" Mbeki's orders and attended a conference which cost 16,000 rand (US$2,300). She had also taken her son and an aide.