Citing AIDS Stance, Critics Claim Mbeki Has Gone ‘Off His Rocker’
South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has denied the causal link between HIV and AIDS, has left analysts "at a loss" to explain his insistence on "fanning an unnecessary controversy" over HIV/AIDS that may "destroy his status as a respected statesman," the National Post reports. This year, a host of critics have called the South African leader "incoherent, arrogant, authoritarian, eccentric, even 'coming unhinged' and 'off his rocker.'" Mbeki's response: "All of us have our critics. I'm certainly not going to be discouraged from dealing with this question because someone thinks I am unhinged." In addition to attributing AIDS to poverty, Mbeki has denied that antiretroviral drugs lower the incidence of vertical HIV transmission, established an advisory panel with "dissident" AIDS scientists and accused American intelligence agents of "plotting to discredit him." AIDS activists warn that he has "single-handedly created mass confusion" and hurt their campaign to promote condom use, while business leaders contend that he could be driving away potential investors. In addition, diplomats have privately "mocked" him; cartoonists have publicly "lampooned" him, and about 5,000 international scientists have signed a declaration denouncing his AIDS stance. In South Africa, Mbeki has drawn criticism from doctors, nurses, teachers, church leaders, members of his own party and former President Nelson Mandela. For Mbeki, however, last week's episode of NBC's "The West Wing" -- seen by 20 million North American viewers -- provided the "ultimate humiliation." Fictional President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, "took a dig" at Mbeki during the show about White House efforts to convince drug companies to lower the cost of pharmaceuticals for developing nations. He said, "Then you've got guys like Mbeki who turn around and say that AIDS isn't linked to HIV; it's linked to poverty." Told by an aide that HIV does have ties to poverty, Bartlet fired back, "Would you like me to show you a list of dead millionaires?" The show also included at least five other references to Mbeki. "It is such an embarrassment," Mark Heywood, head of the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg said, adding, "This kind of thing can damage a country. It just shows [that] our president has become a subject of international ridicule. But will it make a difference? I doubt it. He'll just shrug it off." Need More Proof? Last week, the mysterious death of Mbeki's spokesperson, Parks Mankahlana, who many suspect died from an AIDS-related blood disease, refueled criticism of Mbeki's AIDS stance. While two South African newspapers reported that Mankahlana died of an AIDS-related disease, the African National Congress said only that he "died after a long illness ... which he bore bravely to the end." The HIV/AIDS issue has caused some "political fallout" for Mbeki, with a recent poll showing that his approval rating has fallen from 73% last November to less than 50% in August. Still, analysts remain "stumped" about Mbeki's behavior. Opposition politicians suggest that Mbeki will not admit that HIV causes AIDS because his government cannot afford to provide antiretroviral drugs to South Africa's hundreds of thousands of pregnant women, while others blame his "philosophical dislike of multinational pharmaceutical companies." According to one South African newspaper, "He has an intellectual superiority complex" (Schuler, National Post, 11/2).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.