[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.
The Presidency of Thabo Mbeki was in many ways an utter disaster. Insecure, angry, vindictive and far too sure of his own ability to know everything and be the cleverest person in the room, Mbeki acted in ways that had devastating effects on especially poor and black South Africans. This was never more evident than on the issue of HIV/AIDS.
As I pointed out last week, a new study by Harvard researchers estimates that the South African government would have prevented the premature deaths of 365,000 people earlier this decade if it had provided antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients and widely administered drugs to help prevent pregnant women from infecting their babies.
Yesterday the New York Times published an article about this study, reminding us again how disastrous Mbeki and his Minister of Health have been to the health of our people. That is one of the reasons why I do not share Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s view that the recalling of Mbeki was a dreadful and constitutionally problematic step.
Our Constitution requires that the President retains the confidence of the majority of the members of the National Assembly and if he or she loses that confidence, the NA can institute a vote of no confidence in the President. That is how our quasi-Westminster system was designed to operate and there was nothing wrong with the ANC recalling Mbeki after it lost confidence in him. In fact, Mbeki should have been recalled long ago and it is an indictment of the ANC that it took so long for them to get rid of this man.
That is also why, so far, I am a rather big fan of President Kgalema Motlanthe, who acted on the first day of his presidency two months ago to remove the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, a polarizing figure who had proposed garlic, lemon juice and beetroot as AIDS remedies. The subsequent appointment of Barbara Hogan was also an inspired choice. According to the New York Times Hogan said:
“I feel ashamed that we have to own up to what Harvard is saying,” Ms. Hogan, an A.N.C. stalwart who was imprisoned for a decade during the anti-apartheid struggle, said in a recent interview. “The era of denialism is over completely in South Africa.”
What a breath of fresh air! Just imagine how Ms Tshabalala-Msimang would have responded to this study and weep for South Africa and its long suffering people. A President who can fire an incompetent and criminally negligent Health Minister and appoint a person of the caliber of Hogan would get my vote. Pity he will not be the ANC’s election candidate next year.
But the New York Times article also contains other very interesting tidbits. It refers to an article written by Ngoako Ramathlodi in which he recounts the way in which Nelson Mandela was humiliated during a 2002 ANC meeting after he made a rare appearance to question the party’s stance on AIDS.
Mr. Ramatlhodi described speakers competing to show greater loyalty to Mr. Mbeki by verbally attacking Mr. Mandela as Mr. Mbeki looked on silently. “After his vicious mauling, Madiba looked twice his age, old and ashen,” Mr. Ramatlhodi wrote.
Mr. Ramatlhodi himself acknowledged in a recent interview that in 2001 he sent a 22-page letter, drafted by Mr. Mbeki’s office, to another of Mr. Mbeki’s most credible critics, Prof. Malegapuru Makgoba, an immunologist who was one of South Africa’s leading scientists. The letter accused Professor Makgoba of defending Western science and its racist ideas about Africans at the expense of Mr. Mbeki.
In 2000 Mr. Mbeki had provided Professor Makgoba with two bound volumes containing 1,500 pages of documents written by AIDS denialists. After reading them, Professor Makgoba said in an interview that he wrote back to warn Mr. Mbeki that if he adopted the denialists’ ideas, South Africa would “become the laughingstock, if not the pariah, of the world again.”
But Mr. Mbeki indicated last year to one of his biographers, Mark Gevisser, that his views on AIDS were essentially unchanged, pointing the writer to a document that, he said, was drafted by A.N.C. leaders and accurately reflected his position.
The document’s authors conceded that H.I.V. might be one cause of AIDS but contended that there were many others, like other diseases and malnutrition.
The document maintained that antiretrovirals were toxic. And it suggested that powerful vested interests — drug companies, governments, scientists — pushed the consensus view of AIDS in a quest for money and power, while peddling centuries-old white racist beliefs that depicted Africans as sexually rapacious.
“Yes, we are sex crazy!” the document’s authors bitterly exclaimed. “Yes, we are diseased! Yes, we spread the deadly H.I. virus through our uncontrolled heterosexual sex!”
The letter written by Mbeki’s office contains astonishing new proof of Mbeki’s denialism. In the usual Mbeki way, it refers to the very real and despicable racism prevalent in the West, and then uses this to question the science around HIV/AIDS. It is astonishingly lacking in logic and suggests to me that Mbeki may not be as clever as we thought he was. It argues that because public health policy in the West has often been informed by racism, the scientific research on HIV and ARVs – done in laboratories in the West to save the lives of people in the West – must also therefore be suspect.
So for Mbeki, HIV tests, the science around the causes and progression of HIV and the miracle ARV medicines developed in Western laboratories now saving the lives of millions of people around the world, cannot be trusted because to trust this would be to accept a view of Africans as rapacious, sexual beings. Mbeki’s letter also questions whether South Africa has an HIV problem at all – despite the fact that between 12 and 20% of pregnant women tested at clinics are found to be HIV positive. Who cares about scientific tests and the lives of ordinary poor and black South Africans if wounds have to be licked, scores settled and arguments won? This letter should be exhibit A in the indictment of Mbeki’s Presidency.
But what also struck me of the article is the fact that all those ANC NEC members were “competing to show greater loyalty to Mr. Mbeki by verbally attacking Mr. Mandela”. Mr Zuma did not speak up then. Neither did Mr Ramatholdi. They sat there quietly while their leader was promoting quackery masquerading as a politically correct pro-African intervention. Why did so few speak up then? Were they scared of Mbeki? And if so, what does it say about their honour and their commitment to the betterment of the lives of the masses of our people? Why did they choose to rather keep the leader happy than to do something that would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Africans? How do they sleep at night?
Now Ramatlhodi – and many others who sat quietly while Mbeki’s quackery was allowed to kill thousands of South Africans – are of course Jacob Zuma supporters. Will they (are they already?) showing the same kind of disastrous loyalty to a new leader with feet of clay? Is that the inevitable result of a mindset that holds the Party and the Leader to be more important than principle, than the truth, than the lives of our people?
Is that why there is not a snowballs hope in hell that the ANC will ditch Zuma and nominate Motlante to be our President after the next election? Is the ANC doomed to repeat the mistakes it made in the past by blindly following Zuma over the cliff? We will see. If Hogan is retained as health minister after the election, if the NPA is allowed to try and prove its case against Zuma in court, if ANC leaders do not sit silently by while Zuma and his cohorts undermine the judiciary, I would be the first to admit that maybe the ANC has learnt something from the Mbeki disaster.
For the sake of South Africa and all its people, I sure as hell hope it has.BACK TO TOP