Editor's Note

By Peter Bruce

Financial Mail (South Africa) 5 Nov. 1999

It was, I think, Newsweek that alerted us to the fact that our President is an Internet junkie. Apparently he spends hours on the Web late at night, trawling for useful speech material he can't find in the local media.

So when he was pounced on the other day for daring to question police rape statistics or the efficacy of AZT as an anti-Aids drug, I did a quick Web search of my own, typing in "AZT problems".

Up popped what I must presume to be the site Thabo Mbeki had alighted on shortly before making his controversial remarks. Try it for yourself:

It contains a host of articles and what look like research reports denigrating AZT as a danger to human life. At one point a picture of the label on a box of AZT from Sigma Corporation pops up to say: "TOXIC. Toxic by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed. Target organs: Blood, bone marrow. If you feel unwell, seek medical advice (show label where possible). Wear suitable protective clothing." And if you are in any doubt you are dealing with something dangerous after reading the words on the label, there's a picture of a skull and crossbones to help you along.

The site also says, as Mbeki did, that "Legal proceedings against Glaxo-Welcome and Health Authorities are being prepared in the US and Europe. If your health, or that of your partner or child, has also been damaged by AZT, you may be able to sue too. For more information contact Alert." Clicking on Alert brings up a site called but I couldn't open it and thus don't know if, indeed, legal proceedings are already in place or are merely being prepared, which is a very different thing.

I have said before that there is a lot of rubbish on the Internet, mainly because it is so easy to put it there. So I don't know if any of the above is credible or not. Make no mistake, it is interesting. But I am intrigued by the obvious fact that we will have to learn to live with a President who likes to trawl for his information in virtual places most of us have never heard of, often written by people who cannot be held responsible for what they say. Most times, coming up with something new works for him and makes him seem learned and deep. But sometimes he may, just may, bump into something truly nutty and repeat it. Most Websites are self-serving and self promoting and, unless true copies of the printed words in honest journals, are unlikely ever to offer sides of the story that do not suit them. It helps to talk to real people now and again.

I do not want to be unfair to the President, whom I admire. But it is worth musing on the capacity of some powerful people to become intrigued by things they do not fully understand or cannot fully explain. Prince Charles is a perfect example. I suspect he and our President could talk for absolutely hours about what a strange and fascinating and complex world we live in.

It is true that while Mbeki is sometimes sniggered at secretly by his own supporters for his occasional literary whimsy, his efforts to be thoughtful are generally a good thing in a country of Philistines such as us. But if he can't sleep, can't someone give him a late night radio talk-show to host?