Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Mbeki's denial
Its not difficult to do the right thing on AIDS, as Malawi's President Bakili Muluzi has demonstrated by publicly stating that his brother died of AIDS, in a bid to reduce the disease's stigma. It goes without saying that this contrasts rather sharply with Thabo Mbeki's public statements on AIDS, which have recently included the claim -- made in an interview with the Washington Post -- that he doesn't know anyone who has, or has died of, the disease. This is despite the fact that it is reasonably well-known that Parks Mankahlana, once Mbeki's spokesman, died of an AIDS-related illness, as did Steve Tswete, once Minister of Safety and Security. Mbeki also approved the appointment of Judge Edwin Cameron, who is openly HIV-positive, to the Supreme Court of Appeal. More to the point, given the scale of South Africa's AIDS problem, even if Mbeki wasn't acquainted with these individuals, he should presumably regard himself as duty-bound to meet people infected with the disease.

It's difficult to fathom this level of denial. The most plausible explanation I've heard is that Mbeki resents the stereotype that Africans are disease-ridden, promiscuous, and can't control their libidos, and doesn't wish to perpetuate it. His statement that he doesn't know anyone who is HIV-positive, made in an interview with a major Western newspaper, should then be read in this light -- some Africans might have this disease, but not all. By extension, not all Africans conform to your stereotypes.

But it goes without saying that this rather misses the point. AIDS is already a problem that can't be wished away. Unfortunate stereotypes about the licentious nature of Africans may abound but, as the gay community has demonstrated elsewhere, the way to deal with such prejudice is not to allow the disease to flourish, but to address it. Perhaps most sadly, Mbeki's stance seems premised on the view that being HIV-positive is co-extensive with having an amoral character. Being HIV-positive, after all, doesn't necessarily mean that one can't control one's sex drive. Mbeki would do better to acknowledge the AIDS problem, but disentangle it from the stereotype, by openly meeting people with the disease, and by emphasising the role of factors such as poverty, and a lack of education, in spreading AIDS. By not doing so, he's simply perpetuating the stigma surrounding the disease, and the very stereotypes that he wishes to do away with. I might also add that he's given creedence to yet another stereotype that will, in the long-run, do incalculable damage to South Africa's prospects -- namely, that blacks can't govern, and are prone to irrational ideas.

What depresses me is that these points are so easily made, and won't hold many new insights for most readers of this blog. In a more robust democracy, Mbeki's incompetence on this issue would, by now, have done serious damage to the ruling party's support. It's a sad indictment of the strength of South Africa's democracy that the ANC's support seems not to have suffered at all.


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