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Newsmaker: Thabo Mbeki

May 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Mbeki arrived in Washington on Sunday for his first state visit. I spoke with him earlier today.

Mr. President, welcome.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday you met with President Clinton and Vice President Gore, and you brought your concerns to them. Do you have any sense that the United States is prepared to take a lead role on the issues which you came here to discuss?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Yes, most certainly. I’m quite confident the administration, the president, vice president, their cabinet are very, very engaged with these issues of peace and stability on the African continent, with issues of African development throughout the continent, not just South Africa. With issues of AIDS that have… these kinds of questions. There’s a very great determination to assist us as Africans, to work with us, to plan with us, to think with us and to act together with us to address these problems. It’s actually very… It’s very inspiring to see that level of commitment from what after all is the leading country in the world.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that commitment translates into financial aid and help and support?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Yes, indeed. We have agreed that in the event that some of these matters which require further discussion to produce an actual program of action, we will continue to interaction among ours on an agile basis, so that actually there is an actual program of action which can then be implemented.

GWEN IFILL: You came to power as a champion of the African renaissance. There are so many problems now on the continent in so many different countries from the Congo to Zimbabwe to Sierra Leone. Are you concerned at all that the African renaissance is being derailed?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: No. You’re quite correct. There are many, many problems, such as the ones that you’ve mentioned. And by their nature, I think they also tend to overshadow the positives. If you just take one question, the ending of military rule in Nigeria, the election of a government led by President Obsanju, that’s an enormous change, impacting on the rest of the continent. Consistent with these issues we’ve been raising with the African renaissance. Take our own region of South Africa in the last… within the last year. We’ve had five general elections in these countries of southern Africa, all of which have been free and fair. I think… there are many of those sorts of things that are happening. I heard the other day that among the fastest growing economies in the world, three of them are in Sub-Saharan Africa. So, no, I… I’m very optimistic.

GWEN IFILL: But in countries like Zimbabwe, which is your neighbor to the north, those kinds of situations and the trauma that’s going on there overshadows these other issues you’re talking about.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: It’s true. You are quite correct. I mean, that’s what happens when you get those sorts of events and incidents. With regard to Zimbabwe, therefore, we are a neighbor. And it is quite clear that we need that to engage the government as much as is possible to address those issues, the land question and then the forthcoming general elections in June.

GWEN IFILL: How are you personally engaging President Mugabe on that subject?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Well, we’ve been speaking very regularly with President Mugabe, as we’ve been speaking also very regularly with the British prime minister, Prime Minister Blair, as well as the secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. So that together we can move this situation and find solutions. I’m glad to say that the U.N. secretary-general is leading a process to address the land question. There’s been agreement between the principle parties to this, which is Zimbabwe and Great Britain, about how to proceed. And hopefully that will get us moving on this matter of the land redistribution, which was agreed, in fact, in 1998. And we’ve also been engaged with the matter of the elections. The parliaments, for instance, of southern Africa, will be sending it over by the end of this week… to ensure we have that international presence of the size, scale, that they’re able to reach all parts of the country and therefore assist in ensuring that you create this climate which would enable the people of Zimbabwe to choose whichever government they wish.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you have obviously been preoccupied to a certain degree with your own domestic issues in southern Africa and South Africa, unemployment, crime, poverty, and also AIDS. You’ve said that you were mischaracterized in some of the comments you said about the relationship between HIV and AIDS, but you have also opened the door to some very controversial scientists to be part of your look at how South Africa should address the problem. Exactly where do you stand with that now do you think?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Well, yes, I don’t know where these reports came from, that we’re taking a position saying there’s no connection from HIV — between HIV and AIDS. I never said it. At the beginning of this month, the month of May, we — fortunately a whole group of scientists came to South Africa, representing the different points of view with regard to these matters. One of the results of which was that the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, the CDC, agreed that they would host a process which would include all these different points of view among the scientists, so that together they can work on these matters that are outstanding with regards to scientific matters — that are outstanding with regard to the HIV/AIDS, because we need more information so that we can act more vigorously and more effectively.

GWEN IFILL: You have questioned, for instance, whether AZT should be disseminated to pregnant women. Why is that?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: This is a complex question. We haven’t questioned. But there are many, many problems that arise. If, for instance, you take the reductions in drugs announced by 5 percent — antiviral drugs by five pharmaceutical companies working together with the United Nations.

GWEN IFILL: In price?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Reductions in price. Calculations of our health minister, if she at the reduced prices bought the retroviral that are indicated for the size… the incidents of HIV in South Africa, that would in fact consume the totality of her drug budget.

GWEN IFILL: So itself just too expensive.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Even at the reduced prices. So whatever one might say about the drugs themselves, these questions are arising: Affordability, medical infrastructure in order to dispense these medicines because it’s a directive of the World Health Organization. That has to be done under very strict medical supervision because of the potential toxicity.

GWEN IFILL: Did Vice President Gore or President Clinton yesterday ask you to explain that more fully for them?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: We discussed that matter with both of them, and we’ve agreed that it’s necessary to continue to engage one another on these things. There are many issues — some of which, for instance, include issues of opportunistic diseases — opportunistic to AIDS. And that would include TB, Meningitis, diseases of this kind, which have to be treated. So to deal with the totality of the situation, you need a very comprehensive program.

GWEN IFILL: Not just AIDS, but all these other diseases which also…

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: They’re fundamental. AIDS is the… malaria is the biggest killer disease on the African continent. We have to respond to that. And malaria has developed resistance to existing drugs. That’s why even President Clinton was raising this. We need to be working on new drugs.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what you mean when you say there should be uniquely African responses to uniquely African problems?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Yes. You see, the incidents of HIV/AIDS on the African continent, you couldn’t say is quite the same in the United States. Just take one basic factor, that among the majority of the population in the United States, the majority of your HIV-positive people will remain homosexual. There’s an increasing minority of heterosexual transmission. But in Africa, it’s totally heterosexual. So these are two different conditions. And we’ve got to respond in a way which actually makes an impact on AIDS and really results in our getting on top of this problem. So we’re really searching as hard and as agilely as we can to elaborate those specific responses while in the meantime, continuing with the rest of the campaigns of public awareness, safe sex, use of condoms, development of vaccines, you know, all of these things, general mobilization of the people. But at the same time, we’ve got to answer the question, what extra do we do to make sure we actually have an impact on what is a very serious matter.

GWEN IFILL: And how does the United States help you in that?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: As I said, the initiatives that have been taken by the U.S. government about reductions in the prices of drugs and medicines to poor countries. Fortunately, I have not just dealt with the AIDS drugs, but all of the related conditions — the work that is being done to try and help to expedite development of a vaccine. That’s an important part of this. We discussed the question of the need to strengthen the medical infrastructure so that indeed when you do dispense these anti-viral drugs, you respond to what I think the WHO is saying correctly, you then need close medical supervision, which means you have to test these people every day. To see… now, if you got a weak infrastructure, you can’t. You can’t just…

GWEN IFILL: Which is what your dealing with, a weak infrastructure.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Which is what we’re dealing with. This is what South Africa is dealing with. You can’t just prescribe and say, “Take these tablets and go home.” Because the person will die of toxicity.

GWEN IFILL: I have a final question, which is more about your leadership. When Nelson Mandela came the office, he was considered to be a conciliator, someone who was charged with reconciliation. You have been described as a more transformational leader. Do you agree with that, and if so, what does that mean to you?

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: I think to some extent it’s a kind of people trying to summarize things. You know, President Mandela was, as much concerned about transformation as we are. And we are as concerned about the issues of national reconciliation as he was. These things have to go together. You know, we come out of South Africa, we come out of a very divided society. It was six years into the period of change. And as you would imagine, it’s not possible in six years to have bridged these racial gaps, to have overcome the mistrusts and the conflicts of the past, and therefore you’ve got to continue to address this matter of building a sense of common nationhood among South Africans. That has to continue. But you’ve got to deal with these challenges, like the challenge of enormous racial inequalities in South Africa, in all respects. So the transformation issue becomes important. But I suppose people make sort of… they want neat, little pockets. So this one is reconciliation. That one is transformation. It doesn’t quite work like that.

GWEN IFILL: Nothing could possibly be that simple.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: No.

GWEN IFILL: President Thabo Mbeki, thank you very much.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Thank you very much.