Six years on: Mbeki, the Aids dissident

President Thabo Mbeki remains an ”Aids dissident” who has told a biographer that he regrets bowing to pressure from his Cabinet to ”withdraw from the debate” over the disease ravaging South Africa.

According to a long-awaited biography by Mark Gevisser, the president feels aggrieved that he was deflected from continuing to question the causes of the epidemic by colleagues who believed the country’s reputation was being damaged by his views on Aids.

Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred describes how the president contacted the author earlier this year to reiterate some of the views that caused uproar in the medical community before Mbeki stopped talking publicly about Aids several years ago.

Gevisser also describes how the president’s view of the disease was shaped by an obsession with race, the legacy of colonialism and ”sexual shame”.

The book will reinforce the view of Mbeki’s critics who say his unorthodox opinions have cost hundreds of thousands of lives by delaying the distribution of medicines, and that the Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has continued these views.

Gevisser recounts how Mbeki phoned him late on a Saturday evening in June to discuss Aids. The president asked the respected Johannesburg author whether he had seen a 100-page paper secretly authored by Mbeki and distributed anonymously among the African National Congress (ANC) leadership six years before.

The paper compared Aids scientists to latter-day Nazi concentration-camp doctors and portrayed black people who accepted orthodox Aids science as ”self-repressed” victims of a slave mentality. It described the ”HIV/Aids thesis” as entrenched in ”centuries-old white racist beliefs and concepts about Africans”.

The author said he did have a copy, but the next day a driver from the Presidency arrived with an updated and expanded version. ”There is no question as to the message Thabo Mbeki was delivering to me along with this document: he was now, as he had been since 1999, an Aids dissident,” the author writes.

Gevisser says he asked Mbeki why he allowed Aids to absorb him.

The president replied: ”It’s the way it was presented! You see, the presentation of the matter, which is actually quite wrong, is that the major killer disease on the African continent is HIV/Aids, this is really going to decimate the African population! So your biggest threat is not unemployment or racism or globalisation, your biggest threat which will really destroy South Africa is this one!”

Yet, as the book points out, the government’s own statistics show the effect of Aids in South Africa has been ”catastrophic” with more than two million people already dead and one in eight of the working-age population infected with HIV.

Mbeki blocked the distribution of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs in public hospitals because he believed pharmaceutical companies were overstating the link between HIV and Aids to sell drugs and underplaying the toxic side-effects of ARVs, which dissidents said killed more people than the disease.

The president said he was seeking an open debate but portrayed those who disagreed with him — who include Nelson Mandela, trade-union leaders whose members were dying in large numbers and Aids activists — as in the pay of the drug companies.

Gevisser says that while Mbeki has never explicitly denied the link between HIV and Aids, he is a ”profound sceptic”. The issue came to a head in the Cabinet in 2002 after Mbeki’s political advisers and some ministers told him it was running out of control and damaging South Africa’s reputation, which had been so high under Mandela’s leadership.

”What happened was not, quite, a rebellion,” writes Gevisser. ”Only one elected ANC representative, Pregs Govender, the chair of a parliamentary committee on the status of women, resigned and publicly criticised Mbeki. And even behind closed doors only one or two people actually had the courage to tell Mbeki they thought he was wrong.”

But Mbeki was persuaded to ”withdraw from the debate”, which Gevisser describes as ”one of the most difficult [decisions] of his long political career”.

After that, the government agreed to distribute ARVs in public hospitals and to adopt an Aids strategy that won wide approval from many of those who had previously been its critics.

”But that did not mean, in any way, that he had changed his mind,” writes Gevisser. ”When I asked him in 2007 how he felt about having to withdraw from the Aids debate, he told me it was ‘very unfortunate’ that his initiative had been ‘drowned’.” — Guardian Unlimited Â

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Chris Mcgreal
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