Wed, Nov 07, 2007 - Page 6 News List

South African president still an `AIDS dissident'

THE GUARDIAN , JOHANNESBURG

South African President Thabo Mbeki remains an "AIDS dissident" who has told a biographer that he regrets bowing to pressure from his Cabinet to "withdraw from the debate" over the disease ravaging South Africa.

According to a long-awaited biography by Mark Gevisser, the president feels aggrieved that he was deflected from continuing to question the causes of the epidemic by colleagues who believed the country's reputation was being damaged by his views on AIDS.

Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred describes how Mbeki contacted Gevisser earlier this year to reiterate some of the views that caused uproar in the medical community before Mbeki stopped talking publicly about AIDS several years ago.

OBSESSION

Gevisser describes how Mbeki's view of the disease was shaped by an obsession with race, the legacy of colonialism and "sexual shame."

The book will reinforce the view of Mbeki's critics who say his unorthodox opinions have cost hundreds of thousands of lives by delaying the distribution of medicines, and that Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has continued these views.

Gevisser recounts how Mbeki phoned him late on a Saturday evening in June to discuss AIDS. The president asked the respected Johannesburg author whether he had seen a 100-page paper secretly authored by Mbeki and distributed anonymously among the African National Congress (ANC) leadership six years ago.

ANC PAPER

It compared AIDS scientists to latter-day Nazi concentration camp doctors and portrayed black people who accepted orthodox AIDS science as "self-repressed" victims of a slave mentality. It describes the "HIV/AIDS thesis" as entrenched in "centuries-old white racist beliefs and concepts about Africans."

Gevisser said he did have a copy but the next day a driver from the presidency arrived with an updated and expanded version.

"There is no question as to the message Thabo Mbeki was delivering to me along with this document: he was now, as he had been since 1999, an AIDS dissident," Gevisser wrote.

He says he asked Mbeki why he allowed AIDS to absorb him.

"It's the way it was presented! You see, the presentation of the matter, which is actually quite wrong, is that the major killer disease on the African continent is HIV/AIDS, this is really going to decimate the African population! So your biggest threat is not unemployment or racism or globalization, your biggest threat which will really destroy South Africa is this one!" Mbeki said.

Yet, as the book points out, the government's own statistics show the effect of AIDS in South Africa has been "catastrophic" with more than 2 million people already dead and one in eight of the working-age population infected with HIV.

MBEKI ATTACKS

Mbeki blocked the distribution of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs in public hospitals because he believed pharmaceutical companies were overstating the link between HIV and AIDS to sell drugs, and underplaying the toxic side effects of ARVs which dissidents said killed more people than the disease.

Mbeki said he was seeking an open debate but portrayed those who disagreed with him -- who include former South African president Nelson Mandela, trade union leaders whose members were dying in large numbers and AIDS activists -- as in the pay of the drug companies.

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