Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
July 14 2000 9:30 PM

Thabo Mbeki

Why has South Africa's excellent president gone loco?

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In the last few months, Thabo Mbeki has been introducing himself to the world as a loon. Mbeki, who labored loyally for decades in the shadow of his mentor, Nelson Mandela, was elected South Africa's president in 1999. His recent U.S. visit and this week's international AIDS conference in Durban were supposed to be a coming out of sorts. But instead of dazzling the West, Mbeki is making a spectacle of himself.

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Mbeki has enraged AIDS experts by consulting Peter Duesberg, an apostate scientist who claims that HIV does not cause AIDS. Mbeki has questioned the effectiveness of AZT and ordered his government not to supply the drug to pregnant women. Shortly before his U.S. visit, he wrote a letter to President Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan decrying the campaign of "intellectual intimidation and terrorism" against scientists who say HIV doesn't cause AIDS. At his opening address to the AIDS conference, he blamed South Africa's health crisis on poverty and glossed over HIV, even though it infects 20 percent of South African adults. His aides reportedly barred South African scientists from signing a petition stating that HIV causes AIDS.

Fiercely intellectual and curious, Mbeki encountered dissident AIDS research while surfing the Web late one night. He read the scientific papers and now talks confidently about "toxicities" and "the phosphoral relation." He portrays himself as an educated skeptic about AIDS. But his late night Web-trolling, credulity about what he read online, and $10 scientific phrases smack less of skepticism than obsession. The president of South Africa is acting like a nutter.

It's a shame that Mbeki has been diverted by this bizarre AIDS twaddle, because he is normally rational. "This is very foolish and uncharacteristic of him," says Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard's Kennedy School. South Africa's peaceful escape from apartheid, smooth transition to democracy, and continued economic survival owe almost as much to Mbeki's cool logic as to Mandela's warm saintliness.

Born in 1942, Mbeki is a child of the African National Congress. He was raised in the struggle and has never wavered from it. Mbeki's parents were Communist missionaries—highly educated intellectuals who moved to the South African bush to help raise the consciousness of the peasantry. His father, Govan, a radical newspaper editor, was sentenced to life in prison along with Mandela at the 1964 Rivonia trial. Govan, chilly and distant, still calls his son "comrade." All Govan cared about, and all Thabo Mbeki came to care about, was the movement.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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ANC leaders marked him early for his keen mind and back-room savvy. At 17, he was expelled from boarding school for organizing a student strike. A year later, the ANC shipped him to England to earn a master's in economics from the University of Sussex. (He also wrote a dissertation about Romantic poetry.) Mbeki longed to return to South Africa to fight in the armed struggle, but ANC leaders twice forbade it. They recognized that he was more useful negotiating than shooting.

Mbeki, who served as ANC President Oliver Tambo's aide-de-camp, helped concoct the strategy that toppled apartheid. As the Cold War faded in the late '80s, the ANC was suffering from an image problem: White South Africans and most Westerners suspected that it was simply a haven for Commie terrorists. Mbeki understood that white South Africans needed assurance that the ANC was pragmatic before they would discuss dismantling apartheid.

To that end, Mbeki became the ANC's Über-diplomat. He was urbane and charming: He smoked a pipe, quoted Yeats, wore perfect suits, and served the best whiskey (and plenty of it). Mbeki traveled to the West and impressed Europeans and Americans with his practicality. More important, he reached out to white South Africans, especially Afrikaner business and cultural leaders. Mbeki met covertly with Afrikaners at pubs in Europe and at conferences in Africa. (He relished these private encounters, where he shone. He is less impressive in public gatherings. He does not schmooze well or rally a crowd.) Mbeki showed the white South Africans that the ANC wasn't run by bloodthirsty maniacs. He was just like them: reasonable, educated, sophisticated. Whites left meetings with Mbeki convinced that South Africa could negotiate with the ANC. The trust he built, as much as anything, led to the early '90s talks that ended apartheid.

Mandela named him deputy president after the 1994 elections, and Mbeki has effectively run the country since 1997. Since assuming power, Mbeki has continued to favor rigorous analysis over emotion or ideology. A longtime member of South Africa's Communist Party, he split with the party as soon as he had authority. He determined that South Africa needed economic stability and growth more than redistribution and state planning. He locked South Africa into a program of International Monetary Fund- and World Bank-sanctioned fiscal discipline. This required him to attack the country's trade unions and cut beloved government programs, austerity measures that enraged loyal ANC constituencies.

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(Mbeki has coupled his capitalist economic program with cultural leftism. He preaches the "African renaissance" and frequently berates rich white South Africans for not doing enough to help black South Africans. Most observers consider Mbeki's race talk pure politics, a way to assuage blacks hurt by his right-wing economic program.)

As president, Mbeki has centralized power in the president's office to make the bureaucracy run efficiently. (The centralization also serves Mbeki's mild, though deplorable, tendency toward authoritarianism.) He seduced Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi into the government, eliminating the risk that Buthelezi might throw the country into civil war. And Mbeki has worked to soothe anxiety about the farm occupations in neighboring Zimbabwe. He is promising landless blacks that South Africa's land-redistribution process will speed up, while reassuring landed whites that Zimbabwe-style lawlessness will not be tolerated.

Mbeki's AIDS paroxysm, in short, is uncharacteristic of his lifetime of reasonableness. Why is he fixated on questioning the Western consensus about AIDS? One answer may be that he is, in fact, acting rationally. His supporters argue that he is trying to rouse a Western scientific establishment that refuses to acknowledge the grim reality of African AIDS: Unless scientists find a vaccine or much cheaper treatments, African governments can't afford to treat it. Mbeki points out that even though pharmaceutical manufacturers have cut prices of AIDS drugs by 85 percent, South Africans still can't afford them. Buying AIDS drugs would eat up the entire South African health budget, leaving nothing for any other public health measures.

There is a second, more depressing explanation. Mbeki is vituperating about AIDS out of despair. Since 1994, he has pursued his economic austerity policies with remarkable discipline, yet he has nothing to show for it. South Africa's economy is not growing. Western investors, after promising aid, have directed very little capital to the country. "He has toed the line in a disciplined fashion, yet he has had very little return on that," says Steve Morrison, who runs the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Africa program. Unemployment remains about 30 percent, crime is horrible, the schools are collapsing, and AIDS is cutting life expectancy from 59 years to 45. South Africa's whites and Asians, rather than sticking out the tough times, are emigrating by the thousands to Europe and the United States. Last week, Germany edged South Africa in the bidding to host the 2006 soccer World Cup. South Africans believe—not unjustifiably—that they got jobbed by a European conspiracy and deprived of a grand, pride-building event.

Mbeki faces a health catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. The West keeps haranguing him to buy drugs that he can't afford, without trying to find a solution that he can. For 58 years, he has never succumbed to desperation or folly, no matter how dire the situation. If South Africa has become so troubled that even the unflappable Mbeki is coming unhinged, the world should worry.