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Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki. Photo: Tara Turkington
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s role in the fight against HIV/AIDS has been subjected to intense scrutiny. He was president (1999 – 2008) during the steep rise of the pandemic. His first few years as deputy president (1994 – 1999) were uneventful in terms of the AIDS pandemic. He headed the Inter-Ministerial Committee on HIV/AIDS, established in 1997 and replaced in 2000 by the SA National AIDS Council. He also launched the Partnership Against AIDS in October 1998, saying in his declaration, “For too long we have closed our eyes as a nation, hoping the truth was not so real” and that HIV/AIDS is “carried and transmitted by human beings”. Mbeki’s first controversial move came in 1997 when he promoted the cause of Virodene, an experimental anti-retroviral drug that has since been proved to have no antiviral effects. By October 1999, Mbeki’s distrust of Western medicine and conventional science had become apparent. Responding to pressure for public sector anti-retroviral treatment, particularly in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, Mbeki called for an investigation into the toxicity of the then-prominent anti-retroviral drug, AZT. In 2000 Mbeki established the Presidential Advisory Panel on AIDS to investigate and discuss, among other things, whether HIV causes AIDS. Just under half of the panel members were AIDS dissidents, according to an article by Michael Cherry, in the respected scientific journal, Nature. But by mid-2002, Mbeki had publicly distanced himself from HIV/AIDS dissidents and refrained from making public comments against official policy. However, in 2003 debate reignited over Mbeki’s stance when in an interview with The BBC, he said, “Personally, I don’t know anybody who has died of AIDS.” Mbeki’s second term in office began with his reappointment of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as Minister of Health, and his continued support of her over his remaining years as president would attract a great deal of criticism. In 2007 he dismissed the Deputy Minister of Health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who opposed the President and the Minister for Health’s approach to the AIDS problem. By mid-2007 donors and members of AIDS societies despaired at South Africa’s ability to combat the AIDS pandemic as long as Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang were in government. In September 2008 Mbeki was recalled as head of state by the ANC, triggering the start of a new era of AIDS governance.
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Wits Journalism Anova Health

The project is jointly managed by the Anova Health Institute and the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, and supported by the Health Communication Partnership based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Centre for Communication Programmes and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief through the United States Agency for International Development under terms of Award No. JH/HESA-02-05.