Friday, September 21, 2007

Who is Worse - Mbeki or Bush?

NVDL: It's a tough call. Bush pushed his country into a dumb war. Okay, probably his reasons were dumb, setting up a police station in Iraq to secure access to Iraqi oil was arguably not so dumb. Mbeki on the other hand is very soft on a national holocaust called AIDS. With over 5 million dead, I think it's no contest here, but I could be wrong. W. still has time to send a few more nuclear capable aircraft into US (and other) airpspace. Perhaps we shopuld hold off on answering this until we have the next South African President, who may well be the worst yet.

From The Guardian:
[Mbeki] behaves as if South Africa's Aids disaster is no such thing. It is as if another of his rivals for worst President, George Bush, were to pretend the Iraq war was a little local difficulty.

During Mbeki's first five-year term, he used to say, with the enthusiastic backing of his Health Minister, a doctor, that Aids was not a sexually transmitted disease and that the anti-retroviral drugs that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world were poisonous. He also famously declared that he knew no one who has Aids.

Since then, Mbeki has been bludgeoned into grudgingly starting to have anti-retroviral drugs handed out. The government's official policy on Aids today is medically sound at last. But Mbeki continues to show an abject lack of leadership, indicating - as his firing of the Deputy Health Minister shows - that he is less than half-hearted in his commitment to the cause; that the great $64,000 question of South African politics - what the hell is going inside Mbeki's head on Aids? - remains unanswered. Because he is an otherwise eminently rational, intelligent man.

While Mbeki has battled with repression, the crisis has cried out for Diana-like theatrics. Mbeki should have gone out into the worst-affected areas and held the hands of Aids patients; he should have publicly celebrated the Lazarus-like return to life of people on the anti-retroviral programmes; above all, he should have gone out of his way to set people straight on Aids, to counter the ignorance and confusion he himself has sown, contributing immeasurably to the scale of the catastrophe.

Mandela, deep into his eighties, has done all of that and more. But out of Mbeki, not a peep. His tragically ludicrous Minister of Health continues to go about creating the impression that beetroot and garlic are as effective in countering the effects of the HIV virus as the anti-retroviral medication.

The one person in government who has had the courage implicitly to defy Mbeki both by pushing hard for the new government strategy on Aids - approved last March, when Tshabalala-Msimang was on sick leave, recovering from a liver transplant -and by showing active leadership on the matter was Madlala-Routledge. So much so that she has become a much respected figure in the global Aids community. As such, she was invited to attend an international conference in Madrid last June on the latest work in the search for an Aids vaccine.

I spoke to her last week in Cape Town, and she told me she accepted the invitation because of the opportunity it provided 'to make a strong case on behalf of the victims' to scientists and European parliamentarians who would be in attendance. She flew to Spain, but barely had she landed in Madrid than she received an order from Mbeki himself to fly straight back. Which she did, but this did not prevent Mbeki from firing her. The reason? That she had flown to Madrid without his permission.

Since then, the South African press has published an avalanche of reports on the alleged alcoholism and kleptomania of her former boss, Tshabalala-Msimang.

Under the front-page headline, 'Manto: a drunk and a thief', the top-selling Johannesburg Sunday Times claimed the Health Minister continued to booze after her transplant, and revealed that in the Seventies she was expelled from Botswana for stealing from patients at a hospital where she was a medical supervisor.

Beyond the office-holding ranks of the former heroes of the ANC's liberation struggle, the clamour has been insistent for the reinstatement of Madlala-Routledge and the firing of Tshabalala-Msimang. Mbeki's response, typical of the small-mindedness that defines him, has been to order the former Deputy Health Minister to repay the government for her trip to Madrid.

He seems oblivious to the callousness of the message he is sending in persisting with the buffoonish Tshabalala-Msimang, a drinking buddy of long-standing, in a ministerial post that Mandela would have considered the most critical in his government by far.

· John Carlin is writing a book on Mandela to be published by Penguin Press (US).

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