The president of the Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki still does not believe that HIV causes AIDS, he is sure the pandemic is being exaggerated out of racism and greed, according to a new biography.
Critics say Mbeki's stance slowed his government's response to the AIDS epidemic, costing hundreds of thousands of lives.
But Mbeki regrets agreeing to be silent about his views on AIDS, according to Mark Gevisser's book "Thabo Mbeki: A Dream Deferred", released Wednesday.
Even as 900 South African AIDS victims die each day, the book says that Mbeki remains steadfast in his belief that the AIDS scourge is being exaggerated and exploited by avaricious pharmaceutical companies bent on pushing expensive antiretrovirals and a self-serving AIDS industry looking to expand.
In the biography, Gevisser, a respected journalist, seeks to unravel the enigma of the reticent Mbeki, the man who talked his comrades out of communist revolution, who convinced the West that the ANC was a liberation movement and not a terrorist organization, who persuaded white South Africans that their future was safe in his hands. The book also describes the transformation through which Mbeki is leading the country.
Gevisser said he spent nearly 10 years on the book, conducting hundreds of interviews and even flying to Moscow to interview an old instructor of Mbeki.
While the 900-page biography is wide-ranging, its revelations on AIDS are likely to spark the most debate. Gevisser writes that Mbeki believes antiretrovirals are so toxic they are more likely to kill than the disease itself. Mbeki's AIDS theories, on which he once expounded in a letter to the White House, led one South African newspaper to question his fitness to rule.
"It is not that he denies the existence of AIDS," said Mbeki's spokesman, Mukoni Ratshitanga. "The government has a comprehensive HIV and AIDS program, which UNAIDS acknowledges is the most comprehensive in the world, and that program has the full backing of the president and Cabinet."
The policy to make antiretrovirals available to all South Africans was put in place only in 2003, after four years of acrimony over Mbeki's stance.
Gevisser writes that it was only under pressure from Cabinet ministers who feared Mbeki was damaging his own and South Africa's reputation that the president in 2003 agreed to stop talking in public about his AIDS theories.
"When I asked him in 2007 how he felt about having to withdraw from the AIDS debate, he told me it was 'very unfortunate' that his initiative had been 'drowned,"' Gevisser writes.
Gevisser asked Mbeki if he would ever consider taking antiretrovirals if he became ill with AIDS. Mbeki said he would not.
Mbeki called Gevisser late one night in June to ask if he'd read a 2002 paper on AIDS, widely believed to have been written by Mbeki. Told that the author had, Mbeki nonetheless sent a driver around with an updated copy which had citations as recent as August 2006.
The paper describes AIDS doctors as latter-day Josef Mengeles, the Nazi concentration camp doctor who performed cruel experiments, and black people who subscribe to the orthodox scientific AIDS approach as victims of a slave mentality.
The paper claimed that Mbeki's spokesman Parks Mankahlana had been "vanquished by the antiretroviral drugs he was wrongly persuaded to consume," killed in 2002 by doctors who "remain free to feed others the same drugs."
Among other things, the book says, Mbeki told Gevisser that he still questions that HIV causes AIDS; he believes that the main cause is not a virus but poverty and repeated exposure to sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis; and is convinced that the epidemic is "the latest racist weapon" being used against Africans.
Gevisser explores the roots of Mbeki's obsession with AIDS, going back to the early 1990s, when South Africa's white-minority government was in negotiations for the now-governing African National Congress to return from exile. At that time, there were racist implications that ANC guerrillas coming from countries with high AIDS prevalence were going to return home and infect the population.
"At the very moment (ANC leaders) assumed their victorious place as the leaders of a democracy they struggled for decades to bring about, they were presented with a dying populace, with a plague to which they had no answers," Gevisser writes.
Mbeki sees the AIDS discourse as a slight on African masculinity, the book says, the latest manifestation of a centuries-old medical pathology that characterized Africans as sexually insatiable and thus "irredeemable vectors of the disease."