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16 October 2000

Deadly dissent of a would-be Galileo

Bryan Rostronin South Africa wonders why President Mbeki, who pursues neoliberal economic policies,

By Bryan Rostron

My God, who would have thought, a mere six years after the advent of democracy in South Africa, that we would be faced with a calamity every bit as grave as apartheid? HIV affects as many as 20 per cent of the population. Southern Africa allegedly has the most catastrophic infection rate in the world. But it is not just the sheer physical decimation caused by HIV/Aids as the grim reaper that has led to the current crisis. It is also the messy, bewildering political and moral confusion gripping our government and its relations with the international community.

The cause is simple: the continued questioning by President Thabo Mbeki of the link between HIV and Aids. Tragically, this crucial debate for South Africa is getting increasingly bogged down in a war of racial innuendo. Tendentious insults, like that of R W Johnson – a former Oxford don and now director of the Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg – who recently suggested Mbeki may be suffering a nervous breakdown, seem to be driving the president and his government into a paranoid bunker mentality. The row is a paradigm for misunderstandings on both sides. Johnson has published widely a raft of quixotic, often bizarre and biased articles on South Africa. He is rarely published in the South African press (which he probably sees as part of “a censorship” that he complains about), while his quirky views get a wide airing internationally (which government circles here see as evidence of the western media wanting only to hear their own dark prejudices confirmed).

Thus we arrive at this terrible impasse: in the midst of a national health calamity, we seem to be increasingly stuck in an apartheid-era groove of racially exclusive, mutually uncomprehending factions. Yet the reality was spelt out last month by Zola Skweyiya, the social development minister, after an eight-week trip through the country to evaluate the effects of HIV/Aids. His conclusion was that the situation was a social “time-bomb”, that 250,000 children had been orphaned so far, due to Aids-related diseases, and he estimated that “about six million, mostly economically active, South Africans will die of Aids in the next decade”. He called for a Marshall Plan approach to confront this “catastrophe”.

Skweyiya’s appeal, however, was largely drowned out by a heated row between the minister of health and a well-known white radio journalist over the minister’s refusal to reply with a simple “yes” or “no” to the Mbeki-inspired query: does HIV lead to Aids? This vicious spat consumed the national press for days, focusing all too familiarly on debates about whether the journalist had been too rude, and whether such aggressive questioning had racially inspired motives. Aids, once again, got lost in the melee.

So it is worth stating clearly: President Mbeki’s persistent questioning of the link between HIV and Aids has been an unmitigated disaster for South Africa. It has distracted the country from dealing decisively with a social catastrophe, it has embroiled it in a long, destructive debate with bitter racial overtones, it has weakened the president internally after barely a year in office, and it has isolated him internationally, with most of the world’s scientific community and political leaders looking on in horror at his stubborn crusade to back the so-called Aids dissidents.

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The full blight of this wasteful debate became evident to me when visiting the United States and Britain recently. While I wanted to discuss a range of subjects – from the iniquity of international trade regulations and debt repayments to a personal project to raise money for a locally deprived school – all everyone wanted to ask was: what the hell is Mbeki up to? Tragically, the president has led himself, and the country, into a cul-de-sac: a whole range of critically important issues not just for South Africa, but for the developing world, are getting sidetracked by the president’s personal obsession.

Speculation as to his motives has become a national pastime. Theories range from the Johnson “off his rocker” school, to those who think Mbeki is in denial in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe. Others see a Machiavellian manoeuvre – like Robert Mugabe with white farmers – to throw up a smokescreen to distract attention from his failure to deal with the problem. It is all rumour. What has never been denied, however, is that he first came across the Aids dissidents’ position while surfing the net at night.

A more plausible psychological interpretation is that, after his years of exile and experience of apartheid, Mbeki is predisposed to sympathise with those challenging an overwhelming orthodoxy. A more sinister theory is that the government would rather let Aids sufferers die than pay for costly drug treatments. This scenario was given brief credence by a presidential spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, who was quoted in the American magazine Science as saying that South Africa could not afford to use anti-retroviral drugs on HIV-positive women, as this might produce too many healthy orphans for whom the state would have to care.

Here is Mankahlana’s rebuttal: “I have issued a statement denying what I am alleged to have said. That means I repudiate what I am alleged to have said. Whether I have said it or not, it means that statement is considered by me to be wrong or unacceptable.”

A friend who knew Mbeki in exile suggested to me that he was simply trying to flex his intellectual muscles, hoping to be proved the new Galileo – but, alas, picked the wrong subject. Frankly, as the president has so far been positively gnomic regarding his views and motives, your guess as to the reasons for his bizarre crusade are as good as mine. It is a mark, though, of Mbeki’s overwhelming lack of political judgement to allow such rumours to flourish, both locally and internationally.

Recently, a (white) adviser from the president’s office argued that this debate was as relevant as the discussion by medieval theologians, during the Black Death, of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

There can be no question that the president’s stance has led to many, especially the young and those in rural areas, refusing to heed Aids awareness programmes. His stubborn posture is growing into a full-blown political crisis. The ANC’s partners in the governing alliance, the Congress of Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, have both strongly reaffirmed their belief that HIV causes Aids. The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, has denounced the government’s Aids policy as a crime against humanity, comparable to apartheid.

Mbeki upped the ante by telling a closed meeting of ANC MPs that he believed the emphasis on the HIV/Aids “thesis” was the result of a conspiracy by US drugs firms. It will be a crucial test for the ANC whether the party will be able to rein in the president and reassert discipline, both political and scientific, or whether Mbeki’s personal views will prevail – thus irreparably damaging the government, further undermining the country’s international standing, and betraying the millions infected by or at risk from Aids.

Mbeki has made himself extremely vulnerable, so soon after taking office. In putting forward the view that Aids in Africa is as much due to poverty as HIV, he may find himself impaled on his own logic. He has followed a vigorous neoliberal economic policy, leading to job losses and a wider gap between rich and poor than under the former apartheid regime. There is an increasing perception, even among some of his alliance partners, that the ANC under Mbeki has turned its back on the poor.

If poverty, rather than Aids, kills – who, then, should be blamed for this terrible swathe of death in South Africa?

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