Monday, December 8, 2008




December 7 2008 at 16:38

Former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki appears uninterested in salvaging his image. He had a chance a week ago and blew it.

Mr Mbeki’s image is already tattered, courtesy of his baby-sitting Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe with ethereal diplomacy even as the latter drives the country to the verge of collapse.

The 20th anniversary of World Aids Day provided Mr Mbeki was a moment to say sorry. Media reported church bells tolled, workers put down their tools and court proceedings stopped for a minute of silence for Aids victims. South Africa also ended a decade of denial about the epidemic.

What Mr Mbeki did in the minute remains unpublished. However, Ms Baleka Mbete, the country’s deputy president, summed up Mr Mbeki’s HIV/Aids legacy: We are the first to admit that a lot still needs to be done.

In all fairness to Mr Mbeki, the fight against HIV/Aids should have begun before the African National Congress-led government took over in 1994. Additionally, the post-apartheid government inherited other more obvious monumental problems.

Mr Alan Morris, a research fellow at the University of South Wales, Australia, wrote six years ago that for the first two years, HIV/Aids didn’t feature even in official speeches. Yet health workers were warning the country headed toward an HIV/Aids crisis. It did.

South Africa hosts an estimated 5.7 million people living with the HIV virus. That, the media says, is about one-sixth of the global total. Moreover, about 1,000 people die daily of the disease and complications, like tuberculosis.

Mr Mbeki is unique in that he considered as hogwash scientifically documented evidence linking HIV virus and Aids. Poverty, at least in Africa, causes Aids, Mr Mbeki insisted. Eradication of poverty, not expensive and toxic Western drugs, was all that’s required to fight HIV/Aids. Well, HIV/Aids afflict very filthy rich Africans.

Of course, Mr Mbeki had company, including scientists outside South Africa who denied HIV virus causes Aids. At home, he had supporters in the ANC and cowards who dared not challenge him.

Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Musimang studied medicine, obstetrics and gynaecology. Voodoo medicine appears to have wiped out all that knowledge. Her cure was simple: lemon peels, raw garlic, South African potatoes and beetroots. Two years ago, Ms Tshabalala-Msimang presented her recipe at the XVI International Aids Conference in Toronto. No wonder she earned a derisive title, ‘Dr Beetroots.’

Most infamous was Mr Mbeki’s government appearance in court to stymie decisions the state makes anti-retroviral drugs widely available.

Mark you, pharmaceutical firms were prepared to donate some, for example, for expectant mothers. The government lost the case.

The results of Mbeki administration’s policies amount to murder through negligence. Last month, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health calculated 330,000 HIV/Aids victims died between 2000 and 2005. Reason? The government delays in introducing Aids drugs. Mr Mbeki and leading champion in voodoo medicine remain silent.

Mr Mbeki’s cover is the ANC’s collective leadership. The party collectively made policy decisions. Actually, a paper written by officials of the National Executive Committee did support Mr Mbeki’s position.

Of course, Mr Mbeki was the leading force in the ANC. His ouster in September as party leader and resignation as president resulted partly from his forcefulness in undermining the collective leadership.

In any case, collective conscience is none existent, unless Mr Mbeki wishes to invent it. The problem with Mr Mbeki is ego.

The New York Times reported Mr Zakie Achmat, who refused to take anti-retroviral for five years until the state made them widely available comparing Mr Mbeki with Macbeth. “It’s easier to walk through the blood than to turn back and admit you made a mistake.” Turning back is what Mr Mbeki should do and reclaim some respect.