South Africans have waited with anticipation every week to read former President Thabo Mbeki’s next instalment in his series of letters, penned in a bid to rewrite the history of his leadership.
While the letters have been quite interesting and got a lot of people talking, with some even leaning towards believing his version of events, Mbeki’s Monday letter about Aids denialism backfired badly.
His reiteration of the belief he’d expressed in the early 2000s – that a syndrome could not cause a virus – drew criticism from all fronts because this stance on HIV left hundreds of thousands of people dead.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) calls Mbeki’s letter an insult to all the people who lost their loved ones to the virus as a result of his denialism.
TAC head of policy Marcus Low says Mbeki’s letter indicates that he is not all remorseful for his actions.
“Under President Thabo Mbeki’s watch, at least 300 000 people died. Had he implemented reasonable policies, had he done what the doctors, scientists and researcher advised him to do, he would have saved 300 000 lives. One of the remarkable things about his letter is that he shows no acknowledgement, he shows no remorse, he doesn’t even try to make an apology,” he says.
We should be clear that his legacy would be that of the Aids denialist president. We think he owes the people of South Africa an apology, he owes an apology to the parents of the children who have been orphaned because their parents could not get ARVs
Low adds that Mbeki’s letter show how out of touch he is with what is happening in the country.
“Fifteen years later he is still making the same argument. He seems completely unaware that the history of the country in the last 15 years has showed that he was wrong about this,” he says.
Low also questions the references Mbeki uses to justify his stance on HIV/Aids. He points out that under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, and with Dr Aaron Motsoaledi as Minister of Health, South Africa has made great inroads in the fight against Aids.
“What has been happening is remarkable. If you look at life expectancy in South Africa it dipped very low, it reached its lowest point during the Mbeki presidency. It went down to the low of between 52 and 53 years,” he says.
When Zuma’s government started offering free HIV treatment, life expectancy in South Africa increased drastically to between 62 and 63 years.
We ask Low if an apology from Mbeki would have made a difference.
“We should be clear that his legacy would be that of the Aids denialist president. We think he owes the people of South Africa an apology; he owes an apology to the parents of the children who have been orphaned because their parents could not get ARVs. He owes an apology to those of us whose friends died of HIV because there was no HIV treatment available. He owes an apology to every South African who lost a family member. We don’t think he will ever give that kind of apology. If there is any form of redemption for him it would be through an apology and admitting his role,” he says.
Political analyst Adam Habib says Mbeki’s attempt to redeem himself has failed.
“I do think that his latest letter on HIV/Aids can compromise his image quite dramatically because a lot of people were saying that he was at least a thoughtful president. I think that what this does is that now people will say: well he hasn’t changed at all. I do think it can backfire on his image in ways that are quite negative,” he says.