A bizarre speech by President Thabo Mbeki at Fort Hare University has been construed as “tragic and inexorable” evidence that he is a closet Aids dissident.
Mbeki’s address, at the inaugural ZK Matthews memorial lecture on October 12, makes no direct reference to the disease.
However, after referring to medical schools where black people were “reminded of their role as germ carriers”, he says: “Thus does it happen that others who consider themselves to be our leaders take to the streets carrying their placards, to demand that because we are germ carriers, and human beings of a lower order that cannot subject its [sic] passions to reason, we must perforce adopt strange opinions, to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from self-inflicted disease.”
He returns to the theme two paragraphs later: “Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world, they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.”
Wits University lawyer Mark Heywood, head of the Aids Law Project, said the Fort Hare speech “appears to describe those who believe Aids is a virologically caused, mostly sexually transmitted disease that can be medically contained, as stigmatising and demeaning black people”. “The evidence tragically but inexorably suggests that the president is an unreconstructed Aids dissident,” Heywood added.
He said the dissident view rested on three pillars: that HIV is a harmless organism that causes no illness; that Aids, if it exists at all, is caused by factors unrelated to HIV; and that drugs supposed to treat Aids do more harm than good. “Despite evasion and obfuscation, all these positions emerge from the president’s statements over the past two years.” The Fort Hare address was a particularly glaring example.
Mbeki’s stand on Aids was a tragedy of momentous proportions, Heywood said. “The onus is on him to dispel the view that he is a dissident, which is widely held in South Africa and internationally.” A similar racial take on HIV/Aids was suggested by Mbeki’s comment last year, in his exchange of letters with Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon, that the theory of the African/Haitian origin of Aids was “insulting”. Also reacting to the Fort Hare speech, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) spokesperson Nathan Geffen said Mbeki was using unscientific arguments as an excuse for not treating people with HIV/Aids.
Mbeki’s carefully prepared response in Parliament this week on the HIV/ Aids pandemic gave little indication of urgency in the government’s response to the crisis and he stumbled, once again, into controversy over his view of the epidemic.
He ducked a question, from Leon, on whether he thought 0,6% of the provincial and national health budget was remotely adequate in view of the urgency of the situation.
He also did not answer the Inkatha Freedom Party’s spokesperson on health, Dr Ruth Rabinowitz, on why the government had not accepted offers of free medication or entered any partnerships with private companies and foreign governments to fight HIV/Aids. Instead, Mbeki stuck to his position about the need to find out what was the true cause of death in South Africa before the government changed any of its programmes, and sniped at people who had taken up the Aids issue as a religion.
“We have to look at all these matters, not as a matter of religious belief, as matters about which you campaign in the street, but as matters we focus on properly, accurately, in order to save our people from ill-health and from unnecessary disease,” he said.
Leon responded by saying Mbeki “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. If President Mbeki doesn’t believe the reports, he should go and visit hospitals, orphanages, cemeteries and funeral parlours to see the grim reality of Aids for himself. HIV/Aids is not just another disease. It is an unprecedented threat to our nation. The government needs to revise the health budget urgently to take cognisance of new evidence of the scale of the HIV/Aids pandemic,” Leon said.
Twice in his replies to questions from Abe Nkomo (African National Congress) and Patricia de Lille (Pan Africanist Congress), the president said the United States government guidelines on anti-retroviral drugs had been “radically revised” to take account of their extreme toxicity. However, opposition MPs point out that the guidelines nowhere suggest that anti-retrovirals should not be used.
The US government’s Centres for Disease Control had merely revised the treatment regime.
Mbeki also admitted that he had not seen the 1999 World Health Organisation(WHO)/UNAids figures of 250000 deaths in South Africa, but he had quoted the WHO statistics of four years’ previously in his letter to Minister of Health Mantho Tshabalala-Msimang asking for an investigation into the cause of death in South Africa.
Both reports were available on the same website. Leon described this as “bizarre” and accused Mbeki of “selectively playing with figures to downplay and deny the scale of the Aids pandemic”.
Earlier this week, the National Council of Provinces social services committee took a different approach in their report on their hearings on the Intergovernmental Fiscal Review 2001. The committee said: “Transforming our response to the impact of HIV/Aids has become fundamental when the statistics show that more people are dying of Aids than had previously been the case. The strength of the response will not only lie with ensuring that medicines and medical care is being directed to those who have the disease but becomes more holistic.”
Minister of Social Development Zola Skweyiya and most of the MECs in the provinces had raised concerns that the social security system was not tailored for the HIV/Aids pandemic and careful decisions had to be made for the allocation of funds to slot into key programmes. The Director General of Social Development, Angela Bester, had indicated to the committees that the implementation of home- and community-based care “has not been smooth” and was receiving urgent attention.
In the National Assembly Mbeki said the government constantly evaluated its programmes, including health, to ensure they remained relevant to realities. In this context Tshabalala-Msimang had been asked to evaluate the latest known statistics on the cause of death in South Africa. The reports from an interdepartmental task team and the Presidential Council on Aids were still outstanding and the government was not considering any reapportionment of funding until the cluster of social ministers had studied them.
“We want to have a proper profile of the incidence of the disease. The government is not an NGO … focused on one particular disease. We are not a TB NGO or an Aids NGO or a pneumonia NGO [applause]. “We are concerned about the health of our people. I am concerned about the incidence of disease and the incidence of mortality comprehensively. We need to have a look at that so that we can see whether our programmes are correct.
Mbeki said health programmes do not consist only of drugs and medicine. “They include improving the general health conditions of our people, and this includes nutrition, clean water … It includes the question of the violence in this society. “We have to look at all of those questions indeed to make sure our spending not only in health but generally throughout government responds to that particular health profile.
Desmond Tutu this week criticised South Africa for “dithering” while people died of HIV/Aids, adding that lives could be extended “by getting the right drugs” Tutu said the disease was “the new apartheid, the new enemy”. Discussing whether this or that is the cause is a luxury we cannot afford.”
For the history of Mbeki’s Internet excursions see Internet Aids expert Mbeki strikes again: www.mg.co.za/mg/za/archive/2001 oct/25oct-news.html