Rifts Grow in South Africa’s African National Congress as Provincial Leaders Break Rank to Offer Treatment
Mounting pressure to take action on AIDS, especially mother-to-child HIV transmission, is causing rifts within South Africa's ruling African National Congress, the Washington Post reports. Monday's announcement by Gauteng province Premier Mbhazima Shilowa, an ANC member, that his government would begin distributing the antiretroviral drug nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women in defiance of national policy was "the surest sign yet that South Africa is no longer the euphoric country that toppled white-minority rule eight years ago," the Post reports. Abby Makoe, a South African newspaper columnist, said Shilowa's defiance is "huge" in political terms. "No one has ever seen such a well-regarded, high-ranking ANC member go against the ANC in such a public way," she explained, noting that although the ANC, Africa's oldest black liberation group, is "outwardly a democratic institution," internally, the group is socialist. "[T]his is a defining political moment for the country as a whole," she said, adding, "The ground has shifted." According to observers, Shilowa's willingness to break from the party ranks and offer nevirapine -- a move only previously undertaken in provinces controlled by opposition parties -- "reflects the maturation" of the country's democracy. "The ANC is moving into the era of modern politics and becoming less of a social movement. The political debate is getting sharper and people are beginning to claim space that has been dominated by a single political party," Ebrahim Fakir, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, said.
Dissatisfaction With Mbeki's AIDS Policy
That debate has largely been spurred by dissatisfaction with President Thabo Mbeki's leadership on HIV/AIDS. Mbeki, who has publicly questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS and suggested that poverty plays a larger role in the disease, has only a 31% approval rating, according to a poll released last year. Nathan Geffen, a spokesperson for the Treatment Action Campaign, which sued the national government last year and won a decision -- currently being appealed by the government -- requiring the government to provide nevirapine to all pregnant HIV-positive women seeking care at public hospitals, explained, "A lot of us believe that Mbeki is right to raise the issue of poverty in relation to the spread of AIDS. Poverty plays a very real role in the pandemic. The problem is that when it comes down to poverty and AIDS, Mbeki is not doing enough to address either issue" (Jeter, Washington Post, 2/20). TAC Chair Zackie Achmat added, "The position of the ANC is unsustainable for many people. On the ground the social pressure is so enormous that they know what they need to do" (Murphy, Baltimore Sun, 2/20). The dissatisfaction has also appeared to spread to former President and ANC leader Nelson Mandela. On Sunday he said that the government needed to "not continue debating, to be arguing when people are dying," leading some observers to think he was disenchanted with Mbeki's leadership. However, yesterday Mandela told 702 Radio that speculation about any rift between the two leaders was "totally untrue." He said that he was "not criticizing the government," but was "talking about the debate and calling upon everybody to try and agree on how AIDS should be treated." He added, "The only weakness is that [the ANC has] not communicated sufficiently. If they did, I'm sure many people would appreciate why they are so cautious about this matter" (Reuters, 2/19).
The ANC and Mbeki have shown signs of softening their stance on AIDS, but any sense of retreat is being "carefully packaged," Steven Friedman, director of the Center for Policy Studies in South Africa, said. ANC officials yesterday released a statement saying that they had conferred and "reached a common understanding on AIDS and 'reaffirmed the correctness of the positions taken by both the ANC and government.'" However, any changes "do not necessarily reflect a shift in the thinking of Mbeki," Friedman said, explaining, "He's got himself in a corner. It's making his retreat a lot more difficult" (Baltimore Sun, 2/20).