Publication: Issued: Date: 2003-07-18 Reporter: George B.N. Ayittey

An Extract of a Presentation before The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS

An Extract of a Presentation before The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS,
Hubert Humphrey Building, United States Congress, Washington, DC July 18, 2003

George B.N. Ayittey, PhD
18 July 2003

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Africa, the "cradle of humanity," has been buffeted relentlessly by many crises senseless civil wars, famine, drought, poverty and brutally repressive kleptocratic regimes. A new threat, AIDS, now threatens the very survival of a beleaguered continent. The pandemic has killed at least 20 million of the more than 60 million people it has infected thus far, leaving 14 million orphans worldwide.

Unfortunately, leadership or the political will has demonstrably been weak in the fight against AIDS. When the AIDS epidemic first erupted, African leaders were in denial. Many were reluctant to talk publicly about the dreadful disease and its prevention. Only a few African countries have made serious efforts to confront the AIDS epidemic Senegal, Ghana and Uganda. Most disappointing has been the failure of South Africa to provide effective leadership in the campaign against AIDS -- despite its 10 percent infection rate and its first-rate modern health care systems. It won a landmark court case against the pharmaceutical industry to provide cheaper versions of patented anti-retroviral drugs to AIDS sufferers but subsequently refused to follow up by providing cheaper drugs to AIDS sufferers. Then President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa added more confusion by claiming in 1999 that HIV does not cause AIDS but rather poverty and other socio-economic factors, a position he has since abandoned.

Criminal Irresponsibility of African Governments

Beyond the practical impediments and potential risks of an ineffective drug treatment strategy, the nearly exclusive focus on the cost of anti-AIDS drugs sidesteps the culpability of African leaders and governments in the spread of the disease. 

South Africa's Lack of Leadership

In the fight against AIDS, South Africa has played a rather perplexing and confusing role. It is the one country, of all those in sub-Saharan Africa, which is best equipped to deal with the AIDS crisis.

More problematic was the government's system of national priorities. In November 1999, the ANC government announced plans to buy $5.5 billion worth of warships, fighter planes and other weapons. Critics raised questions about the wisdom of such a large expenditure when more than a third of the work force is jobless, and the white-minority government left behind dysfunctional schools, an inadequate health care infrastructure, understaffed police departments, and little public transportation*. Allegations of criminal wrongdoing in the award of the defense contracts, of bribes offered and paid, and of government ministers and negotiators funneling contracts to companies in which they had an interest, surfaced when an opposition lawmaker, Patricia de Lille, claimed she had evidence that some ANC politicians had taken bribes from defense contractors. That was followed by media reports that the government's chief negotiator, Shamin Shaik, and former defense minister Joe Modise had funneled contracts to companies in which they had interests or were owned by relatives.

President Thabo Mbeki not only rejected an independent audit but also fired the judge, Judge William Heath, who headed the commission responsible for such investigations. Subsequently, the head of a parliamentary watchdog committee was removed when one of its members, Andrew Feinstein, challenged the ANC to refrain from meddling in the probe. All these raised still more questions about the South African government's misplaced priorities.

In March 2002, Peter Mokaba, the former deputy minister of tourism, and a senior official in the ruling ANC governing party, created a storm of controversy by arguing that H.I.V. does not exist and cannot be spread through sexual intercourse. "H.I.V. It doesn't exist." Mokaba stated, The kind of stories that they tell that people are dying in droves? It's not true. It's not borne out by any facts. Where the science has not proved anything, we cannot allow our people to be guinea pigs." When asked about the AIDS drugs commonly used in the West, Mokaba replied "Anti-retrovirals, they're quite dangerous. They're poison actually." He also asserted that the epidemic itself is a fiction created by multinational drug companies hoping to boost their profits by forcing poor countries to buy AIDS drugs and by financing researchers to terrorize the public with lies about AIDS.

Apparently, the ANC's reservations are partly driven by deep racial suspicions and partly by concerns over the economy.

A way has to be found to involve traditional healers since more than 80 percent of Africans, and AIDS sufferers, still rely on them. Even if traditional medicine can be dismissed as "quackery", traditional healers still need to be involved since they can greatly complicate the fights against AIDS. For example, the notion that having sex with a virgin that led to the rape of even baby girls in South Africa, came from the country's sangomas or traditional healers.


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* It's been all downhill regarding schools, health care infrastructure, police departments and public transportation from then. But what about the SANDF?