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The enigma of Thabo Mbeki
“THE government’s stance on Nevirapine has made South Africa the laughing stock of the world,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu two weeks ago, as President Thabo Mbeki sought to overturn a judge’s order requiring the government to provide the anti-HIV drug to pregnant women without further delay. But nobody is laughing.

South Africa is about to be overwhelmed by a calamity—an estimated 25 per cent of South Africans between the ages of 18 and 50 are already HIV-positive—and the government still refuses to do anything about it. Thabo Mbeki, a highly intelligent man, has somehow reached the conclusion that the entire global medical profession is wrong, that HIV does not cause Aids, and that the drugs which are used to fight it are really poisons.

For a while, people speculated that Mbeki’s position was just a tactical device to help him fight off demands to make the very expensive drug treatments that prolong the lives of Aids victims in the West available on the national health service. South Africa is a relatively poor country, after all, and so many people are affected by HIV/Aids that giving them all those drug “cocktails” on a regular basis could easily consume the entire national health budget. But Mbeki’s government is even resisting the use of Nevirapine, a relatively cheap drug that drastically reduces the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies.

Regular use of Nevirapine would reduce the number of HIV-positive infants in South Africa, currently at least 70,000 a year, by more than half, but Mbeki’s government has fought the demands of Aids activists for immediate nationwide distribution of the drug all the way up to the high court. It lost at every level, and is now appealing the latest judge’s ruling against it to the constitutional court.

It’s such a strange position for the government to take that one suspects the reasons are not so much logical as psychological— and a recently leaked document of the ruling African National Congress strengthens that suspicion.

Mbek’s public questioning of the link between HIV and Aids roused such a storm of criticism that he had to promise last year to stop talking about it in public. But the ANC is under no such restraint in its internal debates, and the 114-page document that was presented to the party’s leaders last month still defended all the paranoid theories about Aids and the drugs used to treat it that Mbeki first espoused several years ago.

The document was prepared after Nelson Mandela, who still loyally supports his successor in everything else, publicly criticised the government’s Aids policies last year. Its authors include Peter Mokaba, a prominent ANC member of parliament who declares that HIV does not exist, that people are not dying of Aids, and that the anti-retroviral drugs used to combat the disease are so poisonous that they “could lead to genocide”.

Though Mbeki did not formally contribute to the document, his fingerprints are all over it. It dwells at length on his favourite theory: that poverty, not HIV, is the reason people’s immune systems collapse. It even talks about an “omnipotent apparatus”, a vaguely defined conspiracy made up of drug companies, scientists and Western governments, which promotes the conventional view of Aids and touts the value of anti-Aids drugs in order to denigrate black Africans, make money out of their misery, and then kill them.

To get the full paranoid flavour of the document, consider its comments about Parks Mankahlana, Mbeki’s former spokesman, who died of Aids last year, and Nkosi Johnson, the 12-year-old boy who publicly criticised Mbeki’s policies at the world conference on Aids in Durban last year.

“(Mankahlana) died, vanquished by the anti-retroviral drugs he was wrongly persuaded to consume. He died prematurely, but the professionals who fed him the drugs remain free to feed others with the same drugs. They lived to tell us and the world that their patient had died of a virus they had never found in their body. Then came Nkosi. He, too, died, vanquished by the anti-retroviral drugs he was forced to consume (by the white woman who adopted him).”

For reasons that remain unclear, the rate of HIV infection among black South Africans is far higher than among Africans further north (where the disease originated). If current trends persist and there is no major intervention by the government, half the South Africans born today may not live to see their 30th birthday. Even the racial balance in the country, which has been shifting strongly in black people's favour for the past several generations, could start to move in the opposite direction, which would be politically explosive.

The subject could not be more serious, so why are the majority of Mbeki’s cabinet and of senior ANC officials in denial about it? I have no knowledge of the state of health of any individual in either group, but it is statistically almost certain that a large proportion of the people in both groups are HIV-positive themselves.

Human nature being what it is, any theory that denies the connection between HIV and Aids and blames poverty instead will be very attractive to them, since they are not personally poor. But it’s a pity about the country.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist

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