TIME talks with South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki

11 Sept. 2000

He could never be another Mandela, but in the 16 months since he succeeded the man who led the victorious struggle against apartheid, Thabo Mbeki has stamped his mark on the South African presidency. While Mandela, even in retirement — at 82 — continues to mediate in various conflicts, Mbeki has become an advocate for all of Africa on the global stage. He will be one of the foremost of international leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York this week. But the early days of the Mbeki presidency have been torrid at times. While Nelson Mandela's office was engagingly open — the man himself homespun to a fault — Mbeki lacks that popular touch. He has reconstructed the presidency around himself into a powerful, impenetrable and, some critics say, disturbingly authoritarian organization.

Mbeki focuses on debates about global and philosophical subjects while unemployment and crime undermine democracy. Even supporters question his apparent backing of dissident scientific views on aids and his passionate — some say quixotic — pursuit of an African renaissance in a continent that continues to tear itself apart through often self-inflicted upheaval. Political opponents charge that when countering criticism of his strategies and style, Mbeki has begun to play the race card, defining South Africa as a country of two nations — one rich and white, the other poor and black. He launched the National Conference on Racism last week with a conciliatory speech, but he made it clear that whites have to wake up to the reality that even in post-apartheid South Africa "racism continues to be our common bedfellow." Last week in Pretoria, Mbeki, 58, sat down with Time Atlantic editor Christopher Redman and South Africa bureau chief Peter Hawthorne:

TIME: Have whites done enough to combat racism in South Africa?

Mbeki: It's not just a white community problem. All of us have an obligation to de-racialize our society. It guarantees our security and addresses the possibility of a savage explosion down the line. To tackle racism we have to end the socioeconomic divisions in our society.

TIME: Does South Africa have a role to play in the global economy?

Mbeki: The challenge facing everybody is to address poverty and underdevelopment. It's not about welfare handouts but about investment, knowledge transfers, all the things that enable economies to grow faster and modernize. Just 1% of the portfolio holdings of the institutional investors of the G7 countries amounts to two-thirds of the total Latin American economy. That gives you a measure of the volume of capital available. The challenge in my view is to find ways to channel larger volumes of that capital into direct investment ... And it is in the interests of the major companies in developed countries to address the issue of poverty among billions of people who can't afford to buy their products. How do we manage this larger transfer of these productive resources into the underdeveloped world?

TIME: Why aren't more outsiders investing in South Africa?

Mbeki: We've attracted many high quality investments. Car companies, for instance, see us as an important base not just for the domestic market but for foreign markets. BMW supplies the whole world with one particular model of car from here. South Africa is now a major platform for the manufacture of Rolls-Royce engines.

TIME: What about the country's reputation for violence?

Mbeki: Our new Investment Advisory Council has put the issue of communications top of its agenda because the image of South Africa projected to the rest of the world is not a reflection of the truth. The CEO of a major company recently told me that his company, which has business in Poland and South Africa, has had 300 of its cars hijacked in Poland, and none here.

TIME: You've been criticized for playing down the link between HIV and AIDS. Where do you now stand on this very controversial issue?

Mbeki: Clearly there is such a thing as acquired immune deficiency. The question you have to ask is what produces this deficiency. A whole variety of things can cause the immune system to collapse. Now it is perfectly possible that among those things is a particular virus. But the notion that immune deficiency is only acquired from a single virus cannot be sustained. Once you say immune deficiency is acquired from that virus your response will be antiviral drugs. But if you accept that there can be a variety of reasons, including poverty and the many diseases that afflict Africans, then you can have a more comprehensive treatment response.

TIME: Are you prepared to acknowledge that there is a link between HIV and AIDS?

Mbeki: No, I am saying that you cannot attribute immune deficiency solely and exclusively to a virus. There may very well be a virus. But TB, for example, destroys the immune system and at a certain point if you have TB you will test hiv positive because the immune system is fighting the TB which is destroying it. Then you will go further to say TB is an opportunistic disease of aids whereas in fact TB is the thing that destroyed the immune system in the first place. But if you come to the conclusion that the only thing that destroys immune systems is hiv then your only response is to give them antiretroviral drugs. There's no point in attending to this TB business because that's just an opportunistic disease. If the scientists ... say this virus is part of the variety of things from which people acquire immune deficiency, I have no problem with that.

TIME: The so-called African renaissance isn't looking so good. Aren't you disappointed about what you're seeing in your continent?

Mbeki: No I'm not disappointed. If you take the politics of the continent — the change in Nigeria for instance is an important step with regard to an African renaissance. Look at the situation in Algeria. The conflict there hasn't come to an end, but I sense that they are getting on top of it. Look around this southern African region, where there's been a whole series of elections — Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi and in Zimbabwe where you had a ruling party which came close to losing power. Yes, there were problems and violence but despite those problems it confirmed the viability of the democratic process. We are making progress in the Congo. I have just met with a delegation from President Kabila and I'm absolutely certain we're going to solve that problem ... The Burundi problem is at an important stage and even the parties that didn't sign the peace accord have indicated they will sign. We are in dialogue with the leaders and the rebels in Rwanda toward a process of integration. We are also having discussions with the government in Angola.

TIME: How do you respond to those who say you aren't being tough enough on these issues?

Mbeki: You can swear twenty thousand times at President Kabila, it won't change the situation in the Congo. We are saying that a military solution in Angola is not possible. But I can't beat President dos Santos over the head with a stick until he agrees. These matters require detailed engagement ... We are saying to world leaders that we have to respond to the challenge of African development. We can't proceed from a position of fatalistic acceptance.

If you look at the African continent the bulk of the current political leadership will at least say we have to abandon previous experiences of military governments, military coups and that we really have to work hard at this democratic system. They are saying we have to abandon the failed economic policies of the past. And I've been saying to the leadership of the developed world that they need to respond positively to that, even if it is to challenge us, to say this is what you say but we want to see practical action from you consistent with what you are saying.

The next step then is for us to come up with a realistic, practical program to help Africa's underdeveloped countries. But for us to succeed we need to act in a manner which does not discredit our commitment to a peaceful, democratic Africa.