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January 2002

Since Nelson Mandela's retirement from parliamentary politics in 1999 and Thabo Mbeki’s succession as head of the ANC and head of state of South Africa, there has been a couple of matters that have reflected badly on him and on his administration.

Firstly there is an arms deal that seems to involve cars and money given to the decision makers, and high-tech hardware that is of dubious necessity seeing as South Africa is already the strongest military power in the region, and is at peace with all its neighbours.

There is the continuing slow collapse of the neighbouring state of Zimbabwe into despotic tyranny under Robert Mugabe through 2000 and 2001, possibly to be followed by anarchy. The destruction of the economy of a major trading partner, and the anticipated wave of refugees is not an entirely external matter. The Mbeki administration’s policy however remains one of friendly “quiet diplomacy”, aka “Policy on Zimbabwe? What policy?”

But none of these comes close to the continuing HIV crisis. In 2001, 10% of the entire South African population, 4 and half million people, are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and AIDS is the leading cause of death in this country, despite denials of that fact from government officials.

His apologists claim that Mbeki has been misunderstood. This is possible, because frankly there’s not a lot that makes sense in the policy and pronouncements. One may concede that he has gotten a lot of negative press; however giving bad press to the government on this issue is shooting fish in a barrel.

Mbeki was in 2001 still entertaining AIDS flat-earthers Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick and allowing crank websites to influence national policy.

Among those Mr Mbeki appointed to the 33-member panel were the controversial American scientists Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick who are at the forefront of the Aids dissident movement. They had a profound impact on Mr Mbeki's view of the disease after he discovered their writings on the internet.
Later on in a speech he performed a remarkable egg-dance, managing to simultaneously confirm and deny that he believed that HIV causes AIDS:
While the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) can be a contributory factor in causing Aids, it can not actually cause the syndrome. Noting that Aids stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. A virus cannot cause a syndrome. A virus can cause a disease, and Aids is not a disease, it is a syndrome.

The basic problem is that many people don't want to study these questions. They are perfectly happy to repeat what is said to be the conventional wisdom. We should keep an open mind on the matter.

- Thabo Mbeki, speach quoted in various sources.

This very damaging to his PR, and he had been persuaded to stay away from these pronouncements. But in spite of this damage control, the anti-retroviral drugs are still not deployed, despite the Treatment Action committee (an HIV action) group taking the government to court on this issue. The court ruled in the TAC’s favour, and the government has appealed. The matter has now been referred to the constitutional court (this is the highest court in the land, a panel of 12 judges charged with debating the constitutionality of laws and decisions).

Richard Calland writes in The Weekly Mail & Guardian, 18 January 2002:

"It’s not that we are against protecting babies from HIC.” The Minister of Health pleaded. “It’s just that we think the judge went too far: this judgment amounts to a position that policy should be in the hands of judges.”

This is not what the ANC had in mind when, with reticence and two minds, the ANC decided to include the extraordinary panoply of socio-economic rights in the final constitution.

However bad it looks - and it certainly does look bad – for however and often and however loudly the government says that it is not appealing because it is against protecting babies from HIV, the perception is and will continue to be the opposite – I simply cannot blame them for wanting to appeal. I refuse to believe that the appeal is purely a tactical manoeuvre designed to delay a full implementation of nevirapine to all the mothers on the 70 000 HIV-positive babies infected by mother-to-child transmission in South Africa each year. I refuse to believe that this government is capable of such cynicism, though I am also prepared to be proved wrong on this.

Having laid a rights-based constitutional bed, the government must now lie on it, however uncomfortable that may be on some days.

Consider this scenario: a child is raped. The hospital staff administers AZT, as it is fair odds that the rapist had HIV (the rapist was not known. It is fair odds that any sexually active adult has HIV). The government official (Northern Cape MEC Dipou Peters) comes down hard on the hospital staff for “violating policy” by administering the drug, which is proven to stop HIV infection.

You can’t make stuff like this up. In the old British phrase – the press are not taking the piss; the government is giving it away.

Anthony Holiday writes also in the Weekly Mail & Guardian, same issue

And right in his living room so to speak, is the AIDS pandemic, with South Africa as its epicentre. Here too, a perception grows of a leader who fatally lacks determination, unless it be determination to do absolutely nothing. It would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that Mbeki has done to his image and the image of his office, at home and abroad, by his pretense at “keeping an open mind” on the cause of the plague and consequent refusal to treat it as what it is – the gravest national emergency we have ever had to face.

Now there is talk (and surely at least some of the publicity advisors at Union building must have heard it) of “genocidal dithering”.

…You will detect the emergence of a crucial consensus. … It comes to this. President Thabo Mbeki – quite apart from his other faults and failures – is unfit to lead South Africa because he is paralysed by the disease of indecision to a degree that is killing the legitimacy of the presidency and blighting the future of an entire nation as a result.

I don’t know if the phrase career-limiting move applies to a head of state, but if it does, this is it.
A node in the proud liberal South African tradition of whining. Because Frankie dared me to. I am not succumbing to Afro-pessimism, but I may be succumbing to Thabo-pessimism.

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