22. September 2000

ANC alarmed at growing Aids fiasco

Deep concern is spreading through the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its parliamentary caucus over the corner into which President Thabo Mbeki has led the party and the government over HIV/Aids.

Most ruling party MPs and senior ANC members approached this week privately said the HIV/Aids fiasco raised serious questions about Mbeki's political judgement. They now had a huge job on their hands to repair the damage done to the party, the government and to anti-Aids campaigns by the president's stubborn and public commitment to eccentric views on the pandemic.

A number of ANC MPs said the fiasco into which Mbeki had led the party and government over HIV/Aids was his worst failure of political judgement since he succeeded Nelson Mandela in June last year. Other episodes of poor judgement included Mbeki's approach on the Zimbabwean crisis, his repeated attacks on white South Africans in recent months, and what a number of ANC MPs termed his "mismanagement" of tensions in the tripartite alliance. But Mbeki's grip on the ruling party and the glue that holds it together were evident when a number of those ANC MPs who had been sharply critical of him in private discussions joined their colleagues in laughing and cheering their leader in the National Assembly when he answered questions on HIV/Aids, racism and Zimbabwe during president's question time.

Answering a question by Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon, Mbeki stuck to his eccentric view that HIV could not be said to be the cause of Aids. But he made two concessions in an attempt to get himself and the government out of the corner in which his comments have placed both in recent months.

One, he acknowledged that the government's anti-Aids strategy was - contrary to his own view - "based on the thesis that HIV causes Aids". Two, he accepted that his utterances on the cause of Aids might have engendered public confusion and undermined the government's anti-Aids campaigns.

A number of health workers in townships and rural areas have, in recent weeks, held the president and his comments responsible for subverting the anti-Aids message, with grave consequences for those affected and their families. They will be relieved if Mbeki's public comments this week on HIV/Aids science are his last. A Cape Town-based political analyst, hitherto strongly supportive of the government and the ruling party, said this week that the HIV/Aids controversy into which Mbeki had drawn his administration was an instance of "bad communication, bad strategy, bad policy, bad politics and bad governance". He added: "This was incoherent government."

Mbeki's international reputation - based on his efforts to achieve peace in Southern Africa's conflict and his sometimes eloquent articulation of the problems of the developing world - has also suffered serious damage as a result of his dogged promotion of his views on HIV/Aids.

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