Trainspotter: The Madness of King Mbeki, HIV/AIDS edition
- Richard Poplak
- South Africa
- 07 Mar 2016 (South Africa) Daily Maverick
Like most South Africans who trawl the Great Pacific garbage patch of South African politics for recyclables, I have a new Monday morning ritual. After breakfast, I reluctantly click my way to the Thabo Mbeki Foundation’s homepage, in search of a blinking icon emblazoned with the word “New.” There I find a portal into the past – or, rather, into an ever-evolving, always-under-construction historical theme park called Mbeki Land. The wilds of this place are inhabited by tin men, cackling witches, singing midgets and a menagerie of fantastical creatures, all of whom are presided over by a figure behind a curtain referred to by his minions as “The Prez.” Imagine the visitor’s disappointment when the curtain is pulled back to reveal Thabo Mbeki hunched in a chair, hammering away on – gasp! – a word processor.
For the several months, with Metamucil-like regularity, President Mbeki has published letters on his foundation’s website, all of which deal with some of the more controversial, if arcane, matters related to his term in office.
The following words were not written by Thabo Mbeki, but they provide an overview of his oeuvre, without subjecting the reader to the agony of an actual Mbeki letter:
Behind the issue of warm beverage consumption in parliament was a larger narrative.
For several decades, ever since I decided to step down from my position as president of the African National Congress, and therefore chose to entrust the country’s presidency to others within the one hundred (100) year-old party’s august ranks, the so-called “Issue of Mbeki and the Parliamentary Tearoom” has been hotly contested by the press and the historical fraternity.
It has been said, by many in both institutions, that President Thabo Mbeki unilaterally chose to switch from Five Roses to Woolworths English Breakfast as the choice of tea bag to be consumed within the contextual space of the tea room, and that this choice reflected not only an uncomfortable closeness with the agents of white corporate power, in particular the grocery chain lobby, but also an unpleasant affinity with the English themselves, with whom President Mbeki had become close during his period in exile.
Adv. Vusi Pikoli, who was at that time serving as head of the head National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP), was said by certain members of the press to have a strong and unwavering preference for Five Roses, and that he, and the Head of the Scorpions, Adv Leonard McCarthy, would strongly object to any attempts at removing the aforementioned tea bags from the tea room, and to replacing them with a superior brand.
It is also said that when I tabled the issues of Woolworths English Breakfast’s marked superiority at a committee session during the ANC’s 1996 lekgotla, in particular focusing on the nutty aroma and cigar-smoke aftertaste inimical to the Five Roses varietal, Pikoli took copious notes, did not engage, and shortly thereafter began negotiating secretly with the Joko brand. But, as political correspondent Ranjeni Munusamy noted in a Standard 1 essay, written exclusively for Natal Catholic Girls Primary School in August 1987, and titled “What I did during my holidays”—“all is not what it seems.”
The reader should now consider herself alerted to some signature Mbeki moves: the flip-flopping from first person to third; the convoluted, run-on sentences; the invocation of the long dead as standing witnesses. Wretched prose aside, the offense in these letters lurks within the minutia, within the endless attempts to “set straight” small points of contention while ignoring the larger implications of a billion tiny, ill-made decisions. As far as Thabo Mbeki is concerned, Thabo Mbeki never slipped up, and the country’s ills must be attributed to the tin men, cackling witches and singing midgets on the other side of the curtain.
But the most recent letter was a killer even by the former president’s standards. The issue that we’d all been dreading – Mbeki’s unforgivable policy decisions during the country’s HIV/Aids crisis – finally received its own rollercoaster ride in Mbeki Land. Entitled “A Brief Commentary on the Question of HIV and AIDS”, and published on Monday, it is – and I say this without reservation – the most absurd, tragic, turgid monstrosity that I have ever encountered on the internet. I repeat: On. The. Internet. Where idiocy goes to die. Where Donald Trump goes to Tweet. Where kitten GIFs count as high art.
There is, and always will be, a case to be made against the Western medical fraternity’s all-knowing arrogance, against Big Pharma’s endless rapacity, against the NGO industry’s warped, self- serving disease models, just as there’s a case to be made for respecting and venerating of traditional therapeutic methods. But Thabo Mbeki has never made the case for any of these with the proper rigour. In his most recent effort at white-washing his record, he kicks off with references to the first recorded incidences of HIV in Southern Africa, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the South African Medical Journal back in 1985. Insanely, the former president is referencing thirty-year-old medical research, which noted that the only locals to have contracted the virus were male homosexuals who recently visited the United States. He quotes this ancient data in order to suggest that there was something fishy about how the virus “mutated” into an equal opportunity murderer of heterosexual South Africans during the mid-90s.
“Why is this special type of HI Virus confined only to our region of the world!” [Keen observers of the Mbeki’s epistolary form will note the exclamation point in lieu of a question mark. This is a recent development.] “Why does it not spread to other areas, even within Africa! What happened to the 1985 South African HI Virus which behaved in the same way as the US and West European HI Virus! If it mutated into what it is today, why did it not mutate in the same way in the US and Western Europe!”
Is this seriously happening! Is Thabo Mbeki going back to the mat on the “HI Virus” conspiracy in 20-freaking-16! (And just like that, the former president starts a grammar trend.)
Shortly before reminding us that he never actually said that HIV didn’t cause Aids, but rather stated that “a virus cannot cause a syndrome” – South Africa’s ranking post-apartheid moment of purest spoken bullshit – Mbeki defends alternate forms of therapy by quoting the interview one Professor Luc Montagnier gave in a What-Is-Aids-Really? conspiracy-doc called House of Numbers. (Montagnier, Mbeki takes pains to point out, is a Nobel laureate – but hey, so is FW de Klerk) I couldn’t make head nor tails of what the prof was mumbling in the documentary, and it makes even less sense transcribed into Mbeki-ese. Something about oxidative stress, and that treating or curing Aids (I’m not sure which) requires a more holistic approach, including a focus on genital hygiene for women, nutrition, and “building up the poor African's immune system.”
Nutrition, however, is a fancy word for food, and there’s a good reason the majority South Africans didn’t (and still don’t) have access to anything but junk staples. Mbeki, who more than any single South African has guided macro-economic policy since the fall of apartheid, contended with regime’s nightmare legacy by dressing up as Margaret Thatcher. He has now attempted to yoke “nutrition” to his reimagined holistic African First health policy. But access to decent, immune-system-building mega-cuisine really comes down to purchasing power—in other words, if you don’t have money, you eat bleached maize three times a day. Did Mbeki’s signature implemented economic policy, the staggeringly neoliberal GEAR, align with his fantastical unimplemented Aids policy? Did it allow poor South Africans to emerge from the chrysalis of transition into a spirulina and wheatgrass-sipping utopia?
Not so much.
Which brings us, finally, to the weakest, dopiest and, I’d argue, criminally insipid argument of his most recent epistle—Mbeki’s Ludlum-esque Tuberculosis Supremacy. It goes like this:
the World Powers, in order to peddle money-spinning ARVs to dumb Africans, all yelled “Aids!” as loudly as possible at the same time, and we were bamboozled into believing that tuberculosis, followed in succession by a bunch of other unsexy diseases, weren’t bigger killers than HIV/Aids. “Why,” Mbeki wants to know, “would the South African Government, knowing the health condition of its own population very well, have been expected so to focus on the 9th leading cause of death as virtually to treat as less urgent and important the first eight (8) leading causes of death, even taken together?” [sic]
I don’t even know where to go with this one. How about here: the ANC government under Mbeki abandoned everyone from tuberculosis patients to schizophrenics by allowing the public health system to drift into dysfunction, helmed (or unhelmed) by the most unloved politician of the democratic era, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang – the only woman in history to enjoy the privilege of a burner liver.
I’ve read the theories detailing Mbeki’s outlook on HIV/Aids, how deeply and personally he felt that the tub-thumping of a single disease was means of (once again) over-sexualizing and demeaning the black African body. But if the Aids crisis felt like just another ploy to recolonise Africa, it certainly didn’t tether us to the West anywhere near as much as GEAR’s preamble did. So there’s good re-colonisation and bad re-colonisation, and Mbeki got to pick which was which based on his personal shibboleths? But the kind of technocratic governance that Mbeki was known for preaching is by definition impersonal – you don’t get to sweat over your turn ons and turn offs when babies are dying. A health crisis requires a specific type of leadership, the type the Nigerians applied to the Ebola outbreak. In a country known for chaos, Abuja doubled-down on every piece of available scientific evidence and, poof, away the disease went. Mbeki’s job was to do everything – everything – possible to restrict the spread of any and every disease threatening the welfare of the South African people. If Big Pharma were fucking us in the process, that was a job for the ANC’s ten thousand Mercedes Benz-driving lawyers to sort out.
It gets worse, though. How does Mbeki end off this latest, lunatic zip around Mbeki Land? With a fascinating factoid:
“The world's biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill-health and suffering across the globe is listed almost at the end of the International Classification of Diseases. It is given the code Z59.5 – extreme poverty.”
Well how about that? Did Mbeki’s policies, health or otherwise, deal with code Z59.5? Perhaps we’ll read about that in an upcoming letter, which in Mbeki Land means blaming poverty on poverty, while concentrating on the brand of tea bags and other tragic, sad-ass minutia. DM
Photo: A file photograph dated 10 February 2007 shows former South African President Thabo Mbeki addressing mourners at the funeral of African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Adelaide Tambo in Wattville, east of Johannesburg, South Africa. EPA/JON HRUSA.
- Richard Poplak
- South Africa