By Samkelo Mahlalela | 2018-10-11
This edition of the Multisectoral Response pays tribute to the dearly departed former Prime Minister, Dr Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini.
I know for a fact, that I am the least qualified of people to write a tribute of such a great man, but an African saying says, “If a boy washes his hands, he can eat with kings”, so please indulge me.
When the news of the passing of the country’s erstwhile prime minister (PM), Dr Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini, filtered through, my first thoughts were on his family and the sad journey they would endure – in losing a father.
A special father, one who had lived the better part of his life in public office and constant public scrutiny. As government leader and prime minister, Dlamini had to take many decisions - with some political decisions not so popular (depending on which side of the fence you stood).
One of His Majesty King Mswati III’s longest serving and trusted servants, the death of the longest serving former-PM, who once referred to himself as “the lightening arrester”, has been met with mixed feelings.
The consensus is that he was both a hero to others and a source of pain to others. For us in the national multisectoral response, he was the former, a frontline hero.
In his book titled, “Inspiration: The Personal Journey of a Prime Minister of Swaziland”, he states that in 2001, along with Cabinet, he set up what proved to be the most significant catalyst in the country’s fight against HIV and AIDS, NERCHA.
It was placed under the prime minister as the King’s Office was not responsible for projects.
“I am sorry to say that the ministry of health opposed its establishment, and its later conversion into a council, and even the rolling out of antiretroviral treatment, evidently influenced by the misguided government policy in South Africa at the time.”
As prime minister, Dr Barnabas was the line minister responsible for the multisectoral response led by the National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA).
His Excellency was undoubtedly one of the greatest advocates for the national HIV/AIDS response, which he guided firmly with passion.
It was him who was in office when His Majesty King Mswati III declared HIV/AIDS a national disaster on February 19, 1999 during the opening of the Seventh Parliament of the Kingdom of Eswatini.
In reaction, he was responsible for setting up two high level committees, the Cabinet Committee on HIV/AIDS chaired by the then deputy prime minister and a multi-sectoral HIV/AIDS Crisis Management and Technical Committee.
As the brunt of the epidemic become deep, he spearheaded the creation on an institution with a day to day function to tame the epidemic, that being NERCHA.
I cannot find the best words to describe Dr Dlamini, so I will borrow from Swarthmore College professor Timothy Burke in his personal blog, Easily Distracted, posted on December 6, 2013.
“When you say, ‘He was a great statesman’ credit what that means. It means that he looked ahead, kept his eye on the prize, and tried to do what needed doing, whether that meant taking up arms, or playing chess, or making a friendly connection with a potentially friendly jailer.
“If you are going to say it, then credit first that there might be great leaders (and great movements) where you right now see only terrorism or revolution or disorder. That, so many people were wrong about Mandela should at least allow for that much,”
Titled “Be Nelson Mandela” the piece critiques world leaders for their lack of long-term vision, addressing those deemed to be falling over themselves to memorialise Mandela’s life, who in his early years, was deemed together with his ANC as dangerous terrorists.
Moreover, for much of his life, Nelson Mandela himself was quick to say he as well made great many mistakes as both a leader and man.
We will never know everything there is to know about His Excellency, but his work in the HIV and AIDS response is parallel to none.
n The early years
When the first HIV case was reported in Eswatini in 1986, Dr Barnabas was the minister of finance.
In the initial, the matter was handled by the HIV Committee of Principal Secretaries which operated from 1986 to the early 1990s, before government took the issue more seriously and created the Swaziland National AIDS Programme (SNAP) under the ministry of health and social welfare.
In his biography, Dr Barnabas refers to HIV and AIDS as the country’s most dangerous enemy. I quote:
“When I was appointed prime minister in 1996, I, like the rest of the Swazi society was aware that we had a growing challenge in the form of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, but we had no idea of the extent to which it would slam into our nation, killing so many people and destroying families and communities.
It would become Public Enemy Number One.
And all of this against a background of stigma and denial. What is truly heart-breaking is that, before antiretroviral treatment became generally available, so many people had to endure immense suffering and public shame within the certainty of eventually losing their lives”.
Between 1994 and 1999 the HIV prevalence rate rose from four per cent to over 30 per cent of all women attending antenatalcare – with academicians and pessimists alike predicting that the tiny Kingdom of just one million people would be wiped off the face of the world map.
The prevalence rate continued to rise to 41 per cent over the next few years, prompting His Majesty to declare HIV and AIDS a national disaster.
His Majesty went on to appoint a representative group of Chiefs from the four regions to study best practices in Uganda, which at the time was reversing its prevalence rates, albeit due to high AIDS related deaths.
Later that year, Dr Barnabas presented Eswatini’s HIV and AIDS case on behalf of His Majesty, at the African Union Heads of State Summit in Abuja, Nigeria.
The summit resulted in the signing of the Abuja Declaration. It was at this meeting too, that then secretarygeneral of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, proposed the establishment of a Global Fund to finance the fight against the pandemic.
n The turnaround years
In 2001 during a Cabinet retreat at the Orion Hotel, Pigg’s Peak, on the AU suggestion, Dr Barnabas led the discussion to create NERCHA to convene stakeholders for common purpose and manage the new big global donor funder, the United Nations Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM).
In January 2002, Dr Derek von Wissell, a highly experienced professional and former minister for health, was appointed as the first national executive director of NERCHA and with a staff complement of just twelve officers – now a little over seventy.
The following year, 2003, Dr Barnabas gave his personal support to the initiation of the antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS programme, much against a growing debate of misconception led then South Africa president Thabo Mbeki and minister of health, Dr Manto Msimang’s Garlic and Beetroot debate.
Dlamini, a stalwart decision maker, stuck to science and this paid off as today over 170 000 of 210 000 people living with HIV are alive and on treatment and over 70 000 lives have been saved, including resultant orphan hood.
These were in combination with a plethora of programmes for preventing new infections, keeping PLHIV alive and reducing AIDS related social vulnerability. These being: Abstain, Be faithful and Condomise (ABC), Neighbourhood Care points and KaGogo centres, the OVC schools grants and later Free Primary Education and elderly grants.
Nothing best describes his performance than just last year in July 2017, at the national dissemination of the Swaziland HIV incidence Measurement Survey (SHIMS2) where it was found that the country was winning the war on AIDS.
Little Eswatini (the Swaziland) had obtained the highest rate of reduction of new infections among six countries where similar studies were conducted.
Eswatini earned a standing ovation at the CROI conference when the results were presented.
This echoed a statement he had made at a Cabinet Retreat in Pigg’s Peak in 2013 where he said, “I wish to leave a legacy when I leave my post as PM and health is an important part of my legacy.”
In his biography, the premier states that “From the day NERCHA was established, my weekly meeting with its director, Derek von Wissell, were set in stone, (because) so important was NERCHA’s work in my scale of priorities.
Lives were at stake, as well as the prosperity, and well-being of my country and its people.” Well said!
The multisectoral response is mourning the death of its leader, Dr Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini who was a pillar of strength, and facilitated highest political commitment to the response, both nationally and internationally.
Uyibekile indvuku ebandla! Your legacy in the HIV response will live on. Nkhosi, Dlamini!
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