Aids and soccer

2009-12-08 00:00

LAST week, South Africa was gripped by two distinct emotions at variance with each other. We mourned the deaths of millions of citizens and rued the many errors made in the past during the commemoration of World Aids Day, but days later we celebrated with pride during the ceremony accompanying the Soccer World Cup draw in Cape Town. Our sorrowful resilience of the early week turned into triumphalist ecstasy as the week ended.

On both occasions, President Jacob Zuma displayed an amazing ability to reflect and lead the mood of the time. He showed remorse, while simultaneously displaying a fighting spirit as he rallied the nation to join him in the fight against Aids. During the draw, he was visibly happy as he urged the nation to celebrate. In both cases, he displayed, in his own way, what he wanted the nation to feel. He personified the public mood desired. Thus, he demonstrated a superb ability to drive national mood, at least on the surface of it.

I missed the live coverage of both events due to business engagements, but from the reports that followed, there was a focus on Zuma’s demeanour, as if he was a protagonist in a big South African melodrama. There was much relief — a bit exaggerated in the media — that the president and his government were at one with other sectors involved in the fight against Aids, bringing to an end the bickering and unnecessary divisions of the past decade.

In this regard, the Thabo Mbeki-led government had lowered the bar so much that his successor needed sheer common sense to excel. Under Mbeki, the government set in place one of the best Aids policies in the world and spent more domestic resources in the fight against Aids than any other country, but still failed to lead a united war on Aids. First, the government entangled itself in a complex debate about the science of HIV and Aids. Then it aligned itself with a view that the dominant Aids discourse perpetrated stereotypes about Africa and later appeared to promote a healthy diet­ as an alternative rather than a supplement to treatment.

Of course, the government did not start these debates, but it helped elevate contestations among scientists and scholars into a public debate. In the process, the nuances of arguments central to the debate were lost in sensationalism and selective quotes from literature. This was a debate best left to scientists and scholars to ripen before taking to the rest of us common people. Otherwise, the government could have allowed proxies in the science world to engage in the public debate so as not to obfuscate public policy and its implementation. It is common sense that the government should avoid taking sides in polemic and acrimonious debates, especially if involvement would send the wrong signals or make difficult the implementation of its policies. The president may not be convinced that the dominant science of Aids is correct in our circumstances, but political expediency demands that he should communicate to the public as if he passionately believes in this science.

Science will always resolve its internal debates, allowing public policy practitioners in the government to make corresponding adjustments. If the current scientific insights on which we base public policies in response to problems of our time — be they Aids, poverty, climate change, illiteracy or public discontent — are wrong, then science will be blamed for misleading the nation, which will be excused for relying on the best science of its time. Science helps us resolve so many of our problems, but science can get it terribly wrong too. Governments should defer to scientists not necessarily because they are perfect or mostly correct, but because scientists may be good alibis when it turns out that incorrect judgements have been made on the basis of their counsel.

Similarly, the government does not have to agree or like organs of civil society involved with Aids or other potentially controversial issues of public policy. In the case of Aids, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) working with the Aids Law Project clashed with the Mbeki government over issues that emerged from the government’s forays into the public debate on the science of Aids as well as over the provision of Aids drugs in public health institutions. The real difference of opinion was actually over the point that whereas government should always balance prevention and treatment interventions neatly, the TAC and others favoured a stronger emphasis on treatment. Of course, this is a common difference among various organisations involved in Aids responses the world over, but in the case of South Africa, the failure of the government to use common sense by normalising relations with NGOs complicated a common difference of opinion. The TAC still holds its view and this is not entirely­ in keeping with the Aids policy, which for the record has not changed under Zuma, but relations­ between civil society and the government have improved remarkably­.

What is the difference? The Zuma­ administration was swayed by common sense to say it is better for the two sides to find and exalt things they agree about in their relationship than to allow those they disagree about to predominate. It has thus shifted the focus of the national Aids response from debates to common messages about what we, as a nation, can do better together.

Zuma has laced things up with a simple message to the people: that it is their responsibility, together with the government, to turn the situation around. He knows that there should be no debate about shared responsibility to rescue our beloved country. He understood that by making this point, the burden is shared and there is little room for blaming others. On this basis, he could move his focus to inviting the country to celebrate the Soccer World Cup draw and to display typical South African hospitality come June 2010. The man is a master of emotional intelligence.

There is so much for all of us, especially those in leadership positions, to learn. We should focus on the basics, communicate simply, open space for others to share our heavy responsibilities and speak to both the minds and hearts of our audience.

• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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