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An assurance we can believe, please

Well, the grubby crazy truth is almost out. Back in 1998 President Thabo Mbeki gave South Africans a categorical assurance. It dealt with Virodene, a loony anti-Aids remedy with no credibility among scientists, which was already known to be based on a toxic industrial solvent. Mbeki said: “Neither the ANC nor anyone in its leadership, whether working inside or outside government, has been or will be involved in any financial arrangement related to Virodene.”

Now, however, we know that, starting shortly after Mbeki’s assurance, business confidants of the African National Congress leadership helped secure funding totalling perhaps R35-million to develop and promote Virodene. They did so with the evident concurrence — perhaps active involvement — of senior ANC officials including treasurer general Mendi Msimang.

Worse, they helped facilitate as a major source of the funds for Virodene one Wafic Sa”d, a Syrian-born businessman notorious for his role as a middleman in the big Al Yammamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia — a deal synonymous worldwide with corruption in the arms industry. As is perhaps inevitable in an episode of this kind — where the principals wish to maintain plausible deniability — much of the money was apparently received as cash in dollar notes.

Worse still, most of this funding ended up in the hands of Olga and Zigi Visser, South Africa’s leading snake-oil sales team. And Olga and Zigi quickly showed they were as much strangers to accounting as they were to science. Ribald tales of their high jinks and profligacy abound.

The funding of Virodene’s development at the ANC’s behest after Mbeki’s undertaking to the contrary sets a new standard for bizarrerie in our land. Though we wish we had reason to believe otherwise, we find it difficult to believe that Mbeki did not know about, or give his backing to, this absurd project.

What judgement — or lack of it — might drive senior individuals in the leadership of the ruling party to engage in fantasy on this scale? To blow perhaps R35-million on a project dreamed up by the likes of Olga and Zigi Visser, when nearly half our compatriots live in dire poverty? To connive with dubious fixers and arms dealers in order to do so? To re-enter the adventurer’s world of cash-stuffed suitcases?

We fear that the answers to these questions are not reassuring. Why? Because much of the behaviour of the ANC leadership over HIV/Aids has been little short of pathological. It is a tragic mixture of a desperate hope for a miracle cure, denial that HIV/Aids exists, a feeling that the disease is a blood libel against Africans, a fear that big pharmaceutical companies see the syndrome merely as an opportunity for profit, and the belief that there must be an African cure for the syndrome.

We need another categorical assurance from Mbeki on HIV/Aids. It seems, however, doubtful that we will get it and, if we do, that many of us will believe it. He needs to tell us that, on HIV/Aids, he and his government will deploy maximum political will only along lines suggested by best science.

Hope of renewal

It is tempting to dismiss the launch of the African Union (AU), and its marketing arm, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), as pie in the sky that will have as little relevance to the lives of ordinary Africans as the 38-year-old Organisation for African Unity (OAU). But there are important differences between the AU and its predecessor, and grounds for cautious optimism that good may come of it.

There is, in the first place, the intangible factor of political will. President Thabo Mbeki and the Nigerian, Algerian and Egyptian leaders have staked their political reputations on the success of the union. And, as likely members of the select band of countries in the AU’s peace and security council, they will have a large influence in driving it. It is important to see that, while equality of members was a guiding principle of the OAU, the new union will be a two-tiered body in the United Nations mould.

Another value that underpinned the OAU — respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in member states — has also been significantly modified. The AU will be empowered to intervene in cases of civil war or gross human rights abuse, such as genocide. Nepad’s peer review mechanism offers a further means of policing. States that fail to measure up to governance or human rights norms are likely to be frozen out by Western donors and investors.

In addition, there are the more technical aspects of union that, although less headline-grabbing, may offer significant benefits. These include efforts to rationalise air and other transport links, and to lubricate trade by scrapping tariff barriers.

Trade unions are undoubtedly correct in seeing a strong thread of economic liberalism in the AU/Nepad initiative and there is a risk that it will open Africa to a new round of para-colonial asset-stripping. But the idea that only the state can drive development does not have a good pedigree in Africa. AU/Nepad is at least a new plan, with some chance of unleashing the continent’s creative and productive energies.

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