By Eleanor Momberg
Barbara Hogan, South Africa's new health minister, and her deputy, Dr Molefi Sefularo, were asked to hold one of their meetings outside the department's premises this week so that senior management could say farewell to Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
The former health minister became a minister without portfolio in the presidency after the resignation of former president Thabo Mbeki and some members of his cabinet.
Hogan and Sefularo were sworn into office last week.
Senior departmental officials told The Sunday Independent the two were asked to move one of their meetings to the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria because senior management wanted to say good-bye to their former political head.
"The former minister was much loved by her staff so we wanted to say good-bye properly without putting the new minister in an awkward position," said the senior official, who asked not to be named.
Asked whether Tshabalala-Msimang had tried to interfere in the running of the department since her departure, the official laughed, saying he was sure there were some senior officials who would continue to call on her for advice.
"But, we are government officials, not political appointees. So we will be loyal to, and serve the new minister to the best of our ability," he assured.
Meanwhile, the new minister said her first few days in office had been hectic. She had met Sefularo and Thami Mseleku, the department's director-general. She had had attended a cabinet meeting and her first budget meeting and met her department's senior management.
On Thursday, an apologetic Hogan finally got down to speaking to the media about the challenges that lay ahead, explaining how important it was that she settle into her new post before speaking publicly about the move.
Hogan, an economist and financial and management expert, said she was fortunate to have a qualified doctor as her deputy.
Hogan and Sefularo were proving a popular choice for the task of fixing the health system. Not only had her appointment been praised by Aids activists and opposition parties, but also by some departmental officials.
"There is an air of excitement, of something positive," an official commented.
Hogan and Sefularo emphasised that they are a team.
"We see eye to eye. I do believe that on a personal basis Dr Sefularo is someone that I can relate to. His appointment has been one of the bright spots of this moment," said Hogan.
Sefularo returned the compliment, saying the department could only benefit from her financial and management expertise.
"The appointment of the minister is a good one. We have been comrades for years and we should be able to make a contribution in the six to eight months that we have," he said.
Hogan and Sefularo believed that health was about people, serving people, and about a value system that prioritised and protected the most vulnerable groups in society.
It was also about health care workers, who worked under very difficult conditions and with scarce resources.
While Hogan believed the health system in South Africa had many positive points, she admitted that there were huge challenges ahead.
Details of how those challenges would be addressed would be announced only after consultation with all stakeholders - unions, business, non-governmental organisations and other interest groups.
"We are not playing political tricks. We are facing significant health burdens, so we will not be playing political games with this," said Hogan, adding that properly devised plans, and not just that which made a "good sound bite", would be presented.
Hogan said it was vital to improve the quality of state health care, because the majority of South Africans could afford neither long queues and extended waiting times at health facilities, nor being sent from pillar to post before being seen by a health care worker.
Addressing this meant improving co-operation between the national health department and the provincial health authorities, which often had to fight to secure a portion of the financing they really required.
Hogan said she would also be speaking to health care workers to "hear what they go through".
She is known for her no-nonsense attitude to work and said she was not one for cheap solutions.
She was decisive, firm on accountability and transparency and did not wish to be involved in unnecessary "conflictual" situations.
Asked how she felt about her appointment, she said: "Uhm, I was planning a vegetable garden.
"I was planning to retire from parliament and to get on with my life."
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