IT'S THE kind of thing that might give a banana republic a bad name: the editor of one of South Africa's biggest newspapers threatened with arrest for exposing a minister as a drunk and a thief while the country's top prosecutor is suspended for investigating corruption allegations against the chief of police.
Thirteen years after President Nelson Mandela inspired the world by overseeing a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, the shine has rubbed off his successor Thabo Mbeki.
The soft-spoken but aloof academic the West regarded as a safe pair of hands has, according to his critics, become increasingly autocratic and paranoid. He has sacked officials and ministers who fail to show "slavish deference" and is accused of leading an assault on press freedom the like of which South Africa has not seen since the dark days of apartheid.
For their part, the President's supporters insist the allegations are baseless and part of a political campaign to influence December's crucial African National Congress conference where Mr Mbeki will bid for a third term as party leader against rivals Jacob Zuma, the former deputy president, and businessman Tokyo Sexwale.
The latest target in what one British newspaper called Mr Mbeki's "paranoid war" is the Sunday Times, the country's biggest broadsheet paper whose exposes have regularly embarrassed the Government.
Alarm bells rang last week when the newspaper reported that its owner, Johnnic Communications, had received a bid by a consortium made up of prominent allies of the President, including his political adviser Titus Mafolo, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa and the former chief of state protocol, Billy Modise.
Despite the insistence by the President's spokesman, Mukoni Ratshitanga, that the President knew nothing about it, the opposition was quick to claim that this was a back-door attempt by the state to gain control of one of its most persistent critics. What on its own might seem a relatively innocuous business deal similar to others involving members of the powerful ANC elite, has taken on a sinister edge because of its timing.
Just weeks earlier, the paper's young black editor, Mondli Makhanya, was allegedly threatened with arrest after publishing a series of embarrassing stories about the country's controversial Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, based in part on a leaked copy of her medical records.
The newspaper claimed the minister had disgraced herself during a hospital stay in 2005, throwing tantrums and refusing to eat the food. But it was the allegation that alcohol was smuggled into her room and that she was drunk in the hospital on several occasions that struck a chord, appearing to confirm a long-rumoured drinking problem.
A week later the paper alleged there had been a cover-up over a liver transplant that Dr Tshabalala-Msimang had undergone in March after her own liver was said to have been damaged by "auto-immune hepatitis".
In fact, the paper claimed, the minister was suffering from alcoholic liver cirrhosis and she had continued drinking even after the transplant. It also revealed that she had been convicted of theft after stealing watches, jewellery and even shoes from patients at a hospital in Botswana where she had worked as a medical superintendent in the mid-1970s.
The Health Ministry went to court to demand that the medical records be returned. The Cape Town Medi-Clinic, where the minister stayed in 2005, laid a charge of theft against the paper after discovering her medical records were missing.
Last month the newspaper splashed with the news that police investigating the theft had told its editor and his deputy managing editor, Jocelyn Maker, that they would be arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen property. They are also facing charges under the National Health Act, which makes it an offence to publish someone's medical records without their permission.
In the wake of a call by Essop Pahad, Minister in the Presidency, for government advertising to be withdrawn from the paper, many in the media saw it as an attempt to teach the paper a lesson. It was claimed that Mr Mbeki himself was behind the arrests and that a police officer had spent a week in New Zealand to interview the person suspected of leaking the minister's medical records. It was suggested that Ms Maker's phone had been tapped and police had been told to "dig up dirt" on Mr Makhanya and other journalists involved in stories about the Health Minister.
Writing in a British newspaper recently, writer R. W. Johnson compared Mr Mbeki's behaviour to that of Robert Mugabe, President of neighbouring Zimbabwe. Mr Ratshitanga, the presidential spokesman, responded in kind, labelling Johnson a "full blooded racist".
There is a strong suspicion that the matter is being pursued with a vigour that is in stark contrast to the resources put into solving many of the 19,000 murders committed last year.
Mr Makhanya says he can't discuss the arrest but he is convinced press freedom is under threat.
Also worrying government critics is the ruling ANC's proposal for a media "tribunal" to explore, in the words of ANC information head Smuts Ngonyama "certain biases" within the industry. Karima Brown, veteran political editor of Business Day newspaper (50 per cent owned by Johnnic), points to the recent attempt by the ANC to push a list of approved candidates for the board of the country's largest broadcaster, South African Broadcasting Corporation, as a "clear indication that the state is keen to get its hand on large media institutions".
While the focus has been on the media, there has been a deafening silence from the minister and President on much of the substance of the allegations in the Sunday Times.
On the potentially serious question of whether the minister in charge of the nation's health is an alcoholic, the Government has said nothing.
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