A recent Harvard study has verified what many of us have believed for a very long time – that AIDS denialism on the part of the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, resulted in the premature death of many of his people. What we didn’t know exactly, but what the Harvard study quantified, is that as many as 365,000 South Africans have died because of Mbeki’s foot-dragging on distributing potentially lifesaving antiretroviral medication to his people with HIV/AIDS. Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS policy also prevented pregnant women from receiving medications to reduce the likelihood of mother to child transmission of the virus.
Now that Thabo Mbeki is out of office, perhaps his biographers or historians will be able to shed some light on why this intelligent man, left with the Herculean task of having to follow Nelson Mandela as president of his nation, failed to implement policies that not only would have saved hundreds of thousands of his people, but also failed to show responsible leadership on one of the few issues – HIV/AIDS – that Nelson Mandela, by his own admission, was negligent on as president. Had Thabo Mbeki looked to early examples of leadership on HIV/AIDS in countries like Thailand, Uganda, and more recently in places like Botswana and Namibia – a healthier South Africa could have been the legacy he left his nation after nearly a decade as its president.
Visionary leadership on HIV/AIDS in South Africa could have positioned Mr. Mbeki to take his policies on the road and share, what could have been South Africa’s success, with other African countries that are being dramatically impacted by the AIDS pandemic. Mr. Mbeki envisions an “African Renaissance” for his continent. It is ironic that he could have hastened that renaissance by becoming the preeminent leader on the issue of HIV/AIDS. Instead, Thabo Mbeki oversaw what the virologist in charge of the Harvard study calls “a case of bad, or even evil, public health.”
I have always known that Sibongile, a four-year-old girl with AIDS who I met years ago in the township of Guguletu, probably didn’t need to die. Had her pregnant mother had access to the inexpensive drugs that prevent mother to child transmission of the virus, the chances of Sibongile being born HIV-positive would have been dramatically reduced. Even if Sibongile had been born with the virus, or if she would have contracted it from breast feeding, she might still be alive today with medications. But, that wasn’t to be. “Bad, or even evil, public health” policies meant that Sibongile didn’t have a chance.
Harvard estimates that as many as 365,000 deaths from HIV/AIDS could have been prevented in South Africa, but I’m not thinking of that number today. I’m thinking of Sibongile – one child who has now been dead longer than she lived. Tomorrow, World AIDS Day, I will remember Sibongile – not the policies that contributed to her premature death.