A failure of leadership

If Peter Mokaba did not have Aids, he did everything in his power to suggest the contrary. Is there a single South African who did not raise an eyebrow at the African National Congress’s bland account of his death, as being “from natural causes”?

Mokaba was clearly haunted by the subject of Aids. There are other ANC dissidents, but none who have propagated their views with such evangelical intensity.

It was Mokaba who spearheaded the excoriation of media that suggested — correctly, as it turned out — that presidential spokesperson Parks Mankahlana died of the disease. He admitted to having a hand in the ANC’s “Castro Hlongwane” document, a clumsy attempt to prosetylise the ANC rank and file. He dallied with Anita Allen, South Africa’s link with the weird and wonderful world of HIV deniers. He bore the standard all the way to the United States, and into the august columns of The New York Times.

Mokaba’s loyalty to President Thabo Mbeki, and the latter’s characteristic forced marriage of dissidence and nationalist politics, must have been a factor.

But given the rumours that swirled around his condition for years, his regular visits to traditional healers, and the well-attested tale that Mbeki personally talked him out of using anti-retroviral drugs, such behaviour looked like an unusually aggressive form of denial.

There was, in addition, a suggestive parallel between his conduct and that of Mankahlana. The latter, too, became more stridently unorthodox as his condition worsened — witness his ill-famed statement, months before his death, that the Durban Declaration by mainstream Aids scientists belonged in the waste-paper bin.

Denial of terminal illness is a well-known phenomenon in the medical field. But it tends to be a phase, which the sufferer passes through en route to acceptance. Mokaba appears to have stuck to his guns to the very end.

And while terminal cancer sufferers may convince themselves that their illness can be beaten through, for example, diet, they would be less likely to deny the fact or aetiology of cancer itself.

Aids is different in two ways. It presents not as a distinct condition, but through other infections. And it has spawned a loose system of alternative ideas that can be used to hold the real world at a safe distance.

There is at least a possibility that dissident science, espoused by a leader he idolised, was a straw at which Mokaba clutched while drowning.

His professed Marxism-Lenism would have equipped him for the mental somersaults needed to deny the agency that was killing him. At the heart of Marxism lies the idea of an alternative reality that “bourgeois” thought is designed to obfuscate.

Mokaba showed this kind of intellectual agility in other ways. Using the “two-stage” theory of revolution, he was able to square his socialist principles with his business interests and a taste for expensive cars. In the name of the national democratic revolution, he was also able to attack the trade union movement in good conscience.

The ANC’s intellectual culture is such that theory frequently overpowers the evidence of the senses. A clear example is its systematic misreading of Zimbabwe — including Mbeki’s declaration to his national executive committee, weeks before the 2000 parliamentary elections, that the Movement for Democratic Change was no more than a white farmers’ front with some ethnic support in Matabeleland.

Mokaba was an able persuader and mobiliser — some would say rabble-rouser — who in some way may have imagined he could negate illness by rallying the masses against what dissidents call “the HIV=Aids=Death paradigm”.

If the wish was father to the thought in his Aids dissent, it would be an extreme form of the self-deception to which politicians are especially prone. They are a highly egotistical lot, with an often imperfect sense of their limitations.

Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon could seriously think that he would one day lead South Africa, while a crumbling DA continues to project itself as a government in waiting. United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa last year persuaded himself that his party could make common cause with the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

In the case of political small fry like the DA and UDM, such ambitious delusions are mildly comical. But because of the ANC’s mass constituency, Mokaba’s dereliction of leadership was a far more serious matter.

As a campaigning dissident who denied the infective model of Aids, he effectively encouraged sexual irresponsibility. More than this, if he was dying of Aids and refused to admit it, he reinforced the dread stigma that makes the epidemic so much harder to tackle.

This was, if you like, the social policy fallout of Mokaba’s aberrant views. But there is another, existential dimension.

Leadership carries with it the duty of courageous realism. This means telling one’s followers what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear. But it also implies inspiring by example by, among other things, facing down personal loss and misfortune.

Nelson Mandela personifies this kind of fortitude and dignity in the face of disaster. Minister of Defence Mosiuoa Lekota, who showed such stoical self-mastery after his daughter’s death, is another case.

True leaders do more than win and exercise power — they show us how to live. If Mokaba was in denial because he could not accept his mortality, he failed this test.

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