The death last week of former South African President Nelson Mandela’s only surviving son, Makgatho, to AIDS puts in stark relief the indiscriminate nature of the HIV virus. The horrific toll of that disease includes not only the poor and disenfranchised but every sector of African society. Even those individuals who belong to the most legendary of political clans are vulnerable to AIDS, which kills an astonishing 600 people every day in South Africa, the continent’s most economically developed and Westernized country.
Though Mandela, by his own admission, did not do enough to address the disease when he led South Africa, his post-presidential efforts to raise millions of dollars for anti-AIDS causes and to humanize those victims once portrayed as worthless are laudatory. But unfortunately, the most vital aspect of Mandela’s work has been what in most countries is the most elementary: stating the medical fact that HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, is the cause of AIDS. Anywhere else in the world, this contention is needless, as easy to accept as the fact that two comes after one. Yet in South Africa, pseudo-scientific claims have merged with an anti-Western political agenda left over from the apartheid era to form intransigence in the highest reaches of government that is nothing short of murderous.
While Western liberals complain about supposedly avaricious prescription drug companies withholding medication from the wretched African masses, the real criminal is sitting in the South African capital of Pretoria. President Thabo Mbeki, who once served as a high-ranking leader of the African National Congress that was in exile during apartheid, succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999. Recently re-elected by an overwhelming margin, Mbeki has persisted throughout his administration in entertaining the claim that HIV does not cause AIDS and has resisted attempts to provide cheap and available drugs to those who need them.
Soon after taking office, Mbeki began lending credence to preposterous theories about the origins of AIDS and ways to fight it. He frequently corresponded with, and in 2000 hosted a major conference for, fringe American “scientists” who claim that HIV does not cause AIDS and believe that the disease’s remedy can be found not in healthier sexual practices but rather through sound nutrition and sanitation. One of Mbeki’s favored scientists recently pronounced, “The contagious HIV hypothesis of AIDS is the biggest scientific, medical blunder of the 20th century.” A senior member of the ANC recently chided that, “Western scientists once said to us the earth was flat. Now we know it’s round. I bet one day we look at AIDS the same way.”
While tens of thousands of wealthy South Africans receive drugs through private insurers, the government is distributing generics to a paltry 11,000 citizens and is doing so only because it was forced by the South African Constitutional Court. Mbeki’s administration has stated that AIDS sufferers ought to turn to “African solutions;” his health minister, as recently as February of last year, was prescribing AIDS sufferers garlic, lemons and olive oil.
Mbeki’s behavior would be laughable were the disease not so devastating in his country. South Africa has an HIV incidence rate of 20 percent, one of the highest in the world, and 5.3 million South Africans live with AIDS, more people than in any other country.
There is no telling how many people have died in South Africa due to the foolishness of the Mbeki government. But it is safe to say that the current South African government rivals any apartheid regime in its demonstrated negligence toward the country’s black majority.
For all the recent adulation over South Africa’s 10-year anniversary as a democracy, the country is essentially a one-party state. The ANC controls 70 percent of Parliament, with the rest of the body split among a variety of toothless opposition parties. The ANC is no longer the heroic movement of many South Africans’ nostalgia. It has evolved into an arrogant and complacent governing power, and no one symbolizes this arrogance better than Thabo Mbeki.
This silliness over AIDS has a Yale connection. The 2004 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Wangari Maathai, was a visiting fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2002. The Nobel Committee chose Maathai for her work in sustainable development, and in that capacity, Maathai should know a thing or two about the plague which has hit her nation especially hard. In 2001, when the latest estimates were available, 15 percent of the total population of Kenya was living with HIV.
When it comes to AIDS, however, Maathai is even more off base than Mbeki. Though she does not appear to question the connection between HIV and AIDS, Maathai’s thoughts about the disease’s origins are material best suited for a Robin Cook medical thriller. On Aug. 30 of last year, mere weeks before her prize was announced, she told her countrymen, “Do not be naive. AIDS are not a curse from God to Africans or the black people. It is a tool to control them designed by some evil-minded scientists.” On Oct. 9, the day after her prize was announced, she declared, “I may not be able to say who developed the virus, but it was meant to wipe out the black race.”
Of course, were a conspiracy theory of this ilk voiced by a Caucasian minister from Mississippi who happened to spend every waking moment feeding lepers in India, you could kiss a Nobel Peace Prize goodbye. Maathai fits the trifecta of the multiculturalist-liberal dream — she is the right skin color (anything but white), gender (anything but male) and geographic origin (anything but the Western hemisphere) — making her immune from criticism pointing out what is abundantly clear, that she is a kook.
Mbeki’s talk of “African solutions” for AIDS and Maathai’s ruminating on “evil-minded scientists” are part of a not-so-subtle code for a rejection of advanced Western science. For decades, South Africa was scarred by an inhumane system based on deadly ignorance and fear. Today it is ruled by another form of ignorance and fear that has proven no less murderous.
James Kirchick is a junior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.