Drawing a veil over disaster

2008-11-29 00:00

Ex-president Thabo Mbeki’s departure has been accompanied by an alarming alacrity to draw a curtain over the damage caused during his decade of power. It’s a case of hear no evil, see no evil and if one was part of it all, let’s hope that everyone forgets about it soon.

It shouldn’t be so easy. Mbeki through his perverse denialism — Aids? Zimbabwe? Crisis? What crisis? — bears responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, for the laying to waste of a neighbouring country and for nigh on irreparable damage to South Africa’s international reputation.

A study by Harvard University researchers released this week conservatively estimated that the prolonged refusal by the Mbeki government to provide antiretroviral drugs through the public health-care system resulted in some 365 000 early deaths. To her credit, new Minister of Health Barbara Hogan told the New York Times: “I feel ashamed that we have to own up to what Harvard is saying ... The era of denialism is over completely in South Africa.” But is it?

Accompanying the New York Times article is a previously unpublished letter written, allegedly by Mbeki with the help of Minister Essop Pahad, to Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, who at that stage headed the Medical Research Council. The letter, under the name of Limpopo premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi, berates Makgoba for being “part of those who are calling for his head unless he repents and proffers an apology to western science” for questioning the link between HIV and Aids.

The letter certainly has Mbeki’s paw prints all over it. The writer refers to himself as a “simple native” merely questioning why “African heterosexual activity is highly toxic, whereas Western heterosexual activity is perfectly benign!” – phrases that echo other Mbeki outbursts.

What is interesting is not that Mbeki wrote such drivel, but that the full letter has taken so long to see the light of day. After Makgoba got the nod as the new vice-chancellor of the merged universities of Natal and Durban-Westville, government’s sternest critic became inexplicably, resolutely muted over Mbeki’s controversial HIV/Aids policies.

Under the new Jacob Zuma dispensation, Makgoba seems to have recovered his nerve. He recently described Zuma as one of Africa’s greatest leaders, while Mbeki was a “classic dictator of our time”. Being a scientist who knows the political value of silence, Makgoba has not ventured his opinion on Zuma’s preferred anti-Aids prophylactic, the post-coital shower. Zuma has publicly recanted his naïve HIV/Aids views, but it still is not clear exactly where his faction stands on the disease. At a national level former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang deservedly got the chop, but the nutters still rule elsewhere.

In Zuma’s KwaZulu-Natal, the epicentre of the Aids epidemic, the Health Ministry is still headed by Peggy Nkonyeni. Nkonyeni is an intellectual clone of Tshabalala-Msimang, if the word “intellectual” can be debased sufficiently to describe the erratic and irrational mental meanderings of these two.

Like the Mother Ship, Peggy appears to believe that the HI virus was developed as a weapon of biological warfare, probably by the United States, to destroy the black community. Antiretrovirals are toxic and part of a plot by pharmaceutical colonialists to enslave Africa.

Chillingly, in exchange for increased government funding Nkonyeni has struck a deal with the Dream Centre, a Durban hospice, to incorporate traditional drugs into the treatment of Aids patients. This flouts every medical research and treatment protocol and the Bad Dream Centre admits that many patients discharged after conventional treatment have returned in a “bad way” after taking traditional medicine.

Zuma, as president of the African National Congress, could get rid of Nkonyeni but does not. Keep shtum, especially when complicit.

• Thabo Mbeki’s “lost” Aids letter and links to the New York Times article are on


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