When the President is a Dissident

By Tony Karon

Time Magazine 24 July 2000

Thabo Mbeki has one of the hardest jobs in world politics: following Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa. He has to make good on the promise of liberation, even as many of the country's postapartheid hopes are collapsing amid low economic growth, soaring unemployment and a crime wave that is tearing at the social order. As the leader of Africa's economic and military powerhouse, Mbeki is also expected to play regional statesman and peacemaker, and to lead an aggressive campaign against the AIDS epidemic ravaging the continent.

It is in this fight that he has most disappointed his backers. Mbeki has resolutely proved to be his own man, most notably by endorsing the views of scientists who believe that HIV and AIDS may not be related. That kind of thinking generally gets researchers laughed off as flat-earthers, but the stakes are much higher for Mbeki, who is the leader of a country engaged in a fierce campaign against one of the world's fastest rates of infection. Never mind that the Clinton Administration once championed him as one of the key architects of an African renaissance. "South Africa," enthused Vice President Al Gore last year, "is blessed with a leader in Thabo Mbeki who has been speaking out forcefully, boldly and often [on AIDS]."

Hence Washington's consternation when Mbeki's forceful, bold voice began speaking out often against the scientific assumptions of current AIDS therapies, refused to supply AZT to pregnant women to prevent transmission of HIV in the womb and then invited "AIDS dissident" scientists to sit on a prestigious national advisory panel. Disquiet deepened last week when Mbeki, opening the international AIDS conference, maintained that "we [can] not blame everything on a single virus" and stressed poverty as the most important factor. Almost everyone--including some of his most loyal political allies--has been stunned by Mbeki's HIV skepticism. But there's no question that Africa's dire poverty turbo-boosts HIV's spread and, worse, renders it a death sentence in most cases. Of the 5 million people with AIDS in Africa today, only 20,000 are receiving treatment, because governments can't afford the necessary drugs and infrastructure.

Mbeki is believed to have encountered "dissident" thinking last year during a late-night Web-browsing session, and it's hardly surprising that he may have been searching for an intellectual escape route from the implications of his country's nightmare. Over the next decade, AIDS is expected to devour up to 20% of South Africa's national wealth. Half its population of 15-year-olds is expected to die of the disease. Far from a renaissance, sub-Saharan Africa is in the throes of a plague of medieval proportions. Even at 80% discounts, treatment therapies are simply beyond the means of the continent's governments, leaving them to worry about simply containing the spread of the disease--a tricky enough problem in its own right.

There's certainly something to be said for Mbeki's vigorous intellectual independence. He won't be told what to do by anyone. But even Mbeki's supporters fear that his stubbornness on AIDS may be increasing the risks to his countrymen. Pressure is growing for him to re-evaluate his contrarian stance on HIV and--at the very least--to allow AZT treatment for pregnant women. That demand in particular was endorsed last Friday by a man Mbeki can't easily refuse: Nelson Mandela.