SITTING DOWN WITH PRESIDENT MBEKI
By Joan Shenton
Carte Blanche 16 April 2000
South Africa is in the middle of an important re-evaluation about what has been
described as the greatest plague the world has known - AIDS. Today there are
many societies and communities around the world who profoundly challenge the
idea that a virus, HIV, causes AIDS. Their voices have seldom been heard. In
Pretoria, South Africa, President Thabo Mbecki is bringing together an international
expert panel to allow a wider range of opinions to be heard.
PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Because we have been as it were bought up on a
orthodox view. Certain things that one thought one knows - HIV equals AIDS
equals death. One of the things that became clear, and which was actually rather
disturbing, was the fact that there was a view which was being expressed by
people whose scientific credentials you canít question. I am not saying that they
are necessarily correct, but it seems to me that there had been a determined
effort to exclude their voice - to silence it.
JOAN SHENTON : Last year you were reported in Parliament as being concerned
about giving AZT to pregnant mothers. Why were you concerned?
PRESIDENT MBEKI : Well, because lots of questions had been raised about the
toxicity of the drug, which is very serious. We as the government have the
responsibility to determine matters of public health, and therefore we can
take decisions that impact directly on human beings, and it seemed to me
that doubts had been raised about the toxicity and the efficacy of AZT and
other drugs, so it was necessary to go into these matters. It wouldn't sit
easily on one's conscience that you had been warned and there could be
danger, but nevertheless you went ahead and said let's dispense these drugs.
JOAN SHENTON : Some AIDS doctors say the evidence is overwhelming that AIDS
exists and AZT is of benefit. What is your comment on that?
PRESIDENT MBEKI : I say that why don't we bring all points of view. Sit
around a table and discuss this evidence, and produce evidence as it may be,
and let's see what the outcome is, which is why we are having this
International panel which we are all talking about. They may very well be
correct, but I think if they are correct and they are convinced they are
correct, it would be a good thing to demonstrate to those who are wrong,
that they are wrong.
JOAN SHENTON : People say you are not keen on giving AZT to pregnant women
because it is too expensive and in some ways you are seen as penny-pinching.
What do you reply to that?
PRESIDENT MBEKI : That surely must be a concern to anyone who decides this
drug must be given to stop transmissions, again from mother to child, which
is extremely costly and must be taken into account. But we also need in that
context to answer the particular questions of toxic effect of this drug. If
you sit in a position where decisions that you take would have a serious
effect on people, you can't ignore a lot of experience around the world
which says this drug has these negative effects.
JOAN SHENTON : Why have you been so outspoken recently about greed and the
PRESIDENT MBEKI : I think a lot of the discussion that needs to take place
about the health and treatment of people does seem to be driven by profit.
We've had a long wrangle with the pharmaceutical industry about parallel
imports, and what we were saying is we want to make medicines and drugs as
affordable as a possible to what is largely a poor population. We need to
find these medicines that are properly controlled, properly tested, the
general product and no counterfeits.
JOAN SHENTON : In the press you are exhorted to confine yourself to the job
to which you were elected, and leave specific subjects to the taking of best
PRESIDENT MBEKI : I don't imagine Heads of Government would ever be able to
say I'm not an economist therefore I can't take decisions on matters of the
economy; I'm not a soldier I can't take decisions on matters of defence; I'm
not an educationist so I can't take decisions about education. I don't'
particularly see why health should be treated as a specialist thing and the
President of a country can't take Health decision. I think it would be a
dereliction of duty if we were to say as far as health issues are concerned
we will leave it to doctors and scientists, or as far as education is
concerned we will leave it to educationists and pedagogues. I think the
argument is absurd actually.
JOAN SHENTON : How do you feel about the reaction of your country's leading
virologists and intellectuals to your position?
PRESIDENT MBEKI : I get a sense that we've all been educated into one school
of thought. I'm not surprised at all to find among the overwhelming majority
of scientists, are people who would hold one particular view because that's
all they're exposed to. This other point of view, which is quite
frightening, this alternative view in a sense has been blacked out. It must
not be heard, it must not be seen, that's the demand now. Why is Thabo Mbeki
talking to discredited scientists, giving them legitimacy. It's very
worrying at this time in the world that any point of view should be
prohibited, that's banned, there are heretics that should be burned at the
stake. And it's all said in the name of science and health. It can't be
JOAN SHENTON : Now it has been said that the pharmaceutical industry is more
powerful than government. Are you going to take this debate to other world
leaders like President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair or the Prime Minister
of India who has expressed support for an investigation into these issues,
as you are?
PRESIDENT MBEKI : Certainly I want to raise the matter with politicians
around the world, at least get them to understand the truth about this
issue, not what they might see on television or read in newspapers. And we
were very glad to see India get themselves involved in this issue. The
concern around probable questions, which in a sense have been hidden, will
grow around the world and the matter is critical, the reason we are doing
all this is so we can respond correctly to what is reported to be a major
catastrophe on the African continent. We have to respond correctly and
urgently. And you can't respond correctly by closing your eyes and ears to
any scientific view that is produced. A matter that seems to be very clear
in terms of the alternative view, is what do you expect to happen in Africa
with regard to immune systems, where people are poor, subject to repeat
infections and all of that. Surely you would expect their immune systems to
I have no doubt that is happening. But then to attach such important defence
to a virus produces restrictions and what we are disappointed about as an
Africa government is that it seems incorrect to respond to this AIDS
challenge within a narrow band. If we only said safe sex, use a condom, we
won't stop the spread of AIDS in this country.