By Tom Masland

Newsweek 4 March 2002

Thabo Mbeki is feuding with allies, fighting his cabinet and losing international friends. How his dissent on AIDS is unraveling his presidency

Thabo Mbeki long has savored this moment in the day. Just after the close of office hours, when the 9-to-5 workers have departed, he summons his close companions for a sundowner. His drink is a tall Scotch. The group may change, but most often it includes one or both of the Pahad brothers, Essop and Aziz, college friends from his exile years in Britain, now top aides who know the drill by heart. And the South African president holds court. He tries out an idea, then sits back as the others kick it around. This 6 p.m. Socratic exercise something like a college seminar is the real beginning of his day, after the official, published schedule ends. Soon after, he is at his laptop. If he makes it into bed by 2 a.m., it's an early night.

These sundowner sessions can't be the fun they once were, when the Mbeki presidency was shiny new. The president is in big trouble over his obstinate refusal to acknowledge the gravity of the AIDS crisis in the world's worst-hit country. The annual opening-of-Parliament ritual in Cape Town, which ended last week, was a spectacle of his presidency unraveling. First the world's most revered politician, former president Nelson Mandela, openly split with him over AIDS. Others then piled on. Less than three years into his administration, the politician once considered a troubled continent's best hope is shaken, diminished. He's always had critics: he won't delegate, fears fanciful conspiracies and brutally cuts down close aides in meetings. The rand has crashed and neighboring Zimbabwe is headed off a cliff. None of this compares to the damage he's done himself by questioning the medical basis of AIDS. Mbeki thinks anti-retroviral drugs are poison, and claims privately to have saved friends by getting them off treatment. He won't take an AIDS test because he says that would support the dominant medical "paradigm." "He knows he has dug himself a hole, but he doesn't know how to climb out," said a western Africanist who sees him regularly.

Mandela's dis was devastating. At a ceremony honoring AIDS fighters with a prize named for him, he urged an all-out offensive against the pandemic. In the middle of his speech, he slyly stumbled over the text. He then told the 400 guests that he had made a mistake, but that he knew how to admit it. Mbeki already resented Mandela: privately he had derided him as "the white man's favorite politician." Mandela once said in public that he would have preferred Cyril Ramaphosa, a leader of internal opposition to apartheid in the 1980s, as his successor. In the aftermath of Mandela's speech, the president's office stopped returning his calls, NEWSWEEK learned. The two men later met and papered over the incident, but the damage was done.

The president is in big trouble over his obstinate refusal to acknowledge the gravity of the AIDS crisis in the world's worst-hit country.

That was only the beginning. After Mbeki once again glossed over the AIDS crisis in his annual speech to Parliament, Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu leader, took to the floor to urge an about-face on AIDS treatment. (So far the Health Ministry has limited the use of anti-retrovirals to prevent the mother-to-child transmission of AIDS to 18 "test" sites, and the health minister has ruled out widespread use of a triple therapy to keep AIDS victims alive. Western Cape province, until recently controlled by the opposition, has opened 80 treatment centers.) Buthelezi noted that his own province, along with several others, had begun to roll out anti-retroviral programs in defiance of government policy, and would continue to do so.

NEWSWEEK has learned that Buthelezi went public only after Mbeki shut down an effort by Buthelezi to address the terrible damage the president's AIDS policy has done to South Africa's reputation internationally. A month ago, Buthelezi persuaded a cabinet committee, chaired by Deputy President Jacob Zuma, to expand a top panel that advises Mbeki on AIDS. It would include, among others, the foreign minister, Zuma's ex-wife. Mbeki and his ally, Essop Pahad who chairs the AIDS panel showed up at the meeting of Zuma's committee the following week. Pahad demanded to know whether Buthelezi was trying to slight him. Buthelezi asked Mbeki to recuse himself because the president was the issue. The cabinet ministers stared at each other wordlessly. Mbeki did not leave the room, and the AIDS panel was not expanded.

The mood of defiance is spreading. Activists recently began illegally importing generic AIDS drugs from Brazil. Last week township residents from the Treatment Action Campaign rallied outside the president's Cape Town office to demand treatment for all and a "basic income grant" of 100 rands ($8.75) per month. A cosponsor was the country's biggest labor federation, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), once led by Ramaphosa. And comedians are flaying the president alive. "Not everyone regards you as a pretentious, arrogant, paranoid, heartless, ruthless Stalinist," wrote Evita Bezuidenhout, the alter ego of gay satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, in a letter to the Cape Times. Her son Izan, the drag queen's letter went on, is serving a prison term for racist crimes and has become a big fan of Mbeki because official confusion over AIDS means the disease "will succeed where apartheid failed" by killing off the black majority.

Why is Mbeki willing to wreck his presidency over AIDS? For the sake of his economic policy, some guess. Above all, he is intent on improving his people's lives by making South Africa attractive to investors. He may once have feared that rolling out an AIDS treatment program would bust his austere budget, though costs have plummeted since the big drug companies caved in to popular outrage over their pricing policies in the Third World. But his stance on AIDS has damaged him here, too.

A more likely explanation lies in Mbeki's life story. Mbeki was a prince of the South African liberation struggle as close to royalty as the African National Congress (ANC) ever produced. As a result, he is a pure product of the long exile to which he was sentenced. Some South Africans call him a black Englishman which may be why he so often blames whites for South Africa's problems. He spent his young adulthood on the run, dodging assassination plots and navigating intra-ANC squabbles. He comes by his paranoia honestly. Striving for power was his birthright. Within the party, he elbowed aside a rival to rise as a scribe to ANC President Oliver Tambo, then grabbed the brass ring by taking the unpopular view that the movement had to learn to do business with Western capitalists, just as the Soviet Union was teetering. Adopting a maverick view and sticking to it have served him well.

Mbeki also is used to feeling like the smartest person in the room. That was bred in the bone. Although he was born in a tiny farming village in the Transkei Nelson Mandela's home region he is a third-generation intellectual. His grandparents were educated Christian farmers, and his father was a teacher and hard-line communist organizer, with pictures of Marx and Gandhi on his walls. The dinner-table conversation was about books and politics. Mbeki's mother, trained as a teacher, also operated a sprawling general store that functioned as a kind of library and post office. By the age of 8, Mbeki was reading aloud letters sent to the illiterate peasants, and composing the replies. Quiet and reserved, the young Mbeki read omnivorously. He also grew addicted to radio news bulletins.

Politics stunted this childhood. "I never really had time for the children," his father, Govan Mbeki, told one interviewer. The father moved away from home in 1953, when his eldest son was 11 years old, to edit a radical magazine. Govan barely saw the family from that time until the day 10 years later when he was sentenced to life in prison for treason. Thabo followed in his father's footsteps. He joined the ANC in 1952, at the time of the nonviolent defiance campaign against the escalating government program of racial separation called apartheid. Four years later he was recruited to the ANC Youth League. He was expelled from Lovedale Institute, an elite boarding school for blacks, in his senior year for helping to lead a boycott of classes, and moved into the center of the political vortex, Johannesburg. At the age of 20, a year before his father was jailed, he fled with a group of young activists including his current health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to exile in Tanzania.

The ANC had become his true family. The South African writer Mark Gevisser, Mbeki's brilliant biographer, observes that the elder Mbeki passed on a kind of "martial stoicism" in the service of the anti-apartheid cause to his eldest son. Gevisser calls this "a family that sublimated all its emotions into the struggle." "A son is a mere biological appendage; to be called a comrade, on the other hand, is the highest honor," Gevisser wrote in a long newspaper series that appeared just before Mbeki's 1999 Inauguration (a book is forthcoming). Gevisser told of asking the elder Mbeki if he was proud of the new president at that moment. "Of course I'm proud of him," his father said. "But I'd be proud of any young man who was president of the ANC."

The ANC had plans for the young Mbeki, and he toed the line. While the other exiles waited for slots at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, a British peer placed him at Sussex University, a bastion of British welfare socialism, and eventually he earned a master's degree there. His father and other ANC officials also decreed that he would study economics. His second assignment was to form an ANC organization for students in exile. He quickly became a protégé practically a son of ANC leader-in-exile Oliver Tambo, who had been chosen by ANC elder Walter Sisulu to lead the external opposition to apartheid while Mandela went to jail. Tambo and his wife, Adelaide, arranged Mbeki's 1975 marriage to Zanele Dlamini in a British royal's castle. It forced Mbeki to painfully break off a close relationship with a beautiful blond South African, who moved to Vancouver.

Mbeki joined the ANC's military wing via Moscow. He studied ideology at Moscow University, joined the South African Communist Party's secret Politburo, trained in the use of weapons, then was posted to Swaziland, Botswana, Nigeria and, finally, Zambia, the ANC's exile headquarters. He never saw battle personally, but there nonetheless were close calls with the agents of apartheid. In 1976 they kidnapped two of his colleagues in Swaziland; Mbeki and Jacob Zuma had to go into protective custody there before fleeing the country. And the struggle took some of those closest to him. In 1980, Kwanda Mpahlwa, a boy he had fathered as a teenager in Transkei, disappeared while on his way into exile. Three years later Mbeki's younger brother, Jama, apparently was murdered in Lesotho. Then there was the enemy within. Once Mbeki had established himself at Tambo's side in Lusaka, Zambia, other cadres whose road had been rockier sneered at him as a pampered parvenu. Some hard-line Stalinists, veterans of the movement's tough military camps in Angola and Tanzania, suspected his Western training.. When he invited a CBS television crew in 1978 to film a documentary about the ANC, the movement got its first good PR in America but Mbeki's rivals thought he had confirmed their suspicions. The ANC's own intelligence services classified him as a CIA agent.

The strain took a toll. One contemporary recalls his amazement, after spending a night at the Mbeki townhouse in Lusaka, at seeing Mbeki drink a full tumbler of Scotch for breakfast. He worked endlessly, polishing speeches for the perfectionist Tambo. By his side he invariably had a radio tuned to BBC news bulletins or programs of classical music. He studied Tambo's technique for manipulating a group putting out a question, but withholding his own opinions and emotions. He fenced endlessly with rivals to the left, particularly Communist Party leader Joe Slovo, for the upper hand in policymaking. "To understand Thabo Mbeki, one needs to recognize that he still bears scars from these battles and that he has developed, as a result, a carapace of caution, even... of paranoia," writes Gevisser.

Mbeki brilliantly seduced some of white South Africa's brightest lights in the run-up to the ANC's unbanning in 1990. Arguing that the party must engage the capitalists, he persisted in these backstage "talks about talks," in spite of accusations from ANC hard-liners that he was selling out. The rivalry cost him the primary role in the final round of negotiations over a transfer of power, and some say he suffered a serious depression when Ramaphosa got the job. Mbeki suspected that the powerhouse mining companies had backed the unionist. But in the run-up to the country's first nonracial elections in 1994, Mbeki split the ranks of the "internal" members of the ANC and worked the party's arcane voting structure to his advantage, building a coalition with such organizations as the ANC Youth League and Women's League. The final triumph was his selection as Nelson Mandela's running mate. He served Mandela faithfully, though Mandela sometimes chided him for working too hard. "Tambo and Mandela had something that Mbeki doesn't have Thabo Mbeki," said one ANC elder.

Still he saw threats. And there were early warnings that he might not be entirely rational about them. He was wholly taken in by a newspaper hoax about the country's nuclear program, which reported that the apartheid-era nuclear-research program had secretly discovered a mysterious and powerful new substance called "red mercury." As vice president under Mandela, he backed the development of a spurious AIDS treatment based on a chemical used in dry cleaning. Clearly he was trying to puzzle his own way out of the new crisis that threatened to wreck the fresh dreams of a nation, just as the ANC set out to prove that blacks could captain a modern economy.. Trolling the Web on his laptop, he somehow connected with the tiny scientific minority that claims AIDS is a gigantic medical hoax. Within months of taking office, he phoned at least one of these dissidents.

Once this dalliance became public, he turned on the journalists, activists and mainstream physicians it outraged. Clearly the attacks seemed to him to be a front for efforts to destroy him just as he accomplished his life's ambition. At the same time, a new, closer relationship with Western intelligence agencies opened his eyes to their bag of tricks for manipulating public opinion. In a bizarre address last year to the ANC's parliamentary caucus, the president claimed that the CIA and big pharmaceutical companies were planting stories aimed at destroying him because he had thwarted plans to foist expensive AIDS drugs on the country. As criticism intensified, the list of suspects widened. At a top ANC council last month, Mbeki accused COSATU leaders of working with "international left-wing forces" to oust him.

For all his proven survival skills, Mbeki now is without a tool to free himself. Out of principle, he won't barnstorm. He loathes the modern political arts of image and spin. And yet, as former American U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said before the Mandela awards ceremony, "A leader's job is to lead." Mbeki may be apartheid's ultimate victim: a bright, cultivated, intellectually curious man turned inward, driven by his unique history into a job for which he is not suited. "Thabo belongs to himself," said a woman who has known the president since he first came to Johannesburg. She added: "He doesn't have the personality to be a president." In a 1999 NEWSWEEK interview, Mbeki mused wistfully about how he might someday teach at a university. On campus, chasing a red-herring AIDS theory would have done him little harm. The tragedy is that he couldn't follow his own star.