frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

William Gumede

A South African writer, he is the author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, and the co-editor of The Poverty of Ideas. This is the edited transcript of an interview conduced on Feb. 16, 2006 for FRONTLINE's series, The Age of AIDS.

Do you want to talk about how responsibility for [the AIDS epidemic] was divided within the Mandela administration?

In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first black president in a democratic South Africa and Thabo Mbeki was immediately appointed as one of the deputy presidents. But it was very clear that Thabo Mbeki would be the heir apparent. ...

Initially, Mandela envisaged Mbeki's role as his sort of second in command, and as the person who ran the economy essentially. In the end, it was very, very clear… that Mbeki actually was in charge of the cabinet and everything else. … Mbeki took over the hands-on government and the economy was really his political baby. And in the early years HIV/AIDS was one of his - well, he thought it should be a priority for them.

How did he make it a priority? What did he do in that capacity?

Making it a priority of trying to get money to channel towards dealing with HIV/AIDS and also in terms of the first Health Minister in Democratic South Africa, [Clarice] Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, herself was a medical doctor. I mean her focus was also very genuine about HIV/AIDS and they had a very good partnership, both [as] political partners and also that he supported her in cabinet meetings and on the budget….

So in these years, '94, '95, '96, the time bomb that you described before begins to explode. Talk about that. What happened and why did it get so bad?

The period from 1990, the ANC [African National Congress] was disbanded [and] all the liberation movements were undone, to 1994, there was a four-year stretch of constitutional negotiations - and not much focus on HIV/AIDS. The focus was more [on] peace, trying to create some kind of compromise between blacks and whites and create a new government.…

[T]he first year of the new government --1994 to 1995 - [the government] was just focusing on economics rather than on the pandemic. …[O]nly in the period from 1996 onwards was there slowly a move towards, "Well, you know, this is actually a disease that we have to confront." So it took a two-year period for the new government to really focus resources on trying to deal with the disease.

In retrospect was that an opportunity lost?

Absolutely, it was an opportunity lost. …

[W]hen the awareness came, it was within the context of: "The new government doesn't have enough money." So even though it's a big problem, the kind of money that one would expect to spend on it -- that cannot happen….

But it was also almost a crisis moment for the Mandela government, because it's a period where they just discovered [that] the government that they inherited never had the kind of money that they thought. Public finance was in crisis: massive debts, inflation was double figures and all sorts of things. And, suddenly, they were starting to say -- and Mbeki particularly was saying - "We might have to tighten our belts. We might not be able to deliver to our own supporters. It might take a little longer. We might have to cut some money here and there, and maybe health and social services might just be one of the places where we have to cut."

… As a South African, how do you think [AIDS] will affect his legacy?

The irony is it's going to impact very, very negatively on his legacy. I mean here you have Thabo Mbeki; he is the first political leader in South Africa. … He has managed the best economy in four generations. That's supposedly his legacy but people are never going to look at it that way. …

A lot of lives could have been saved and that's the sad thing. … Nelson Mandela also didn't do much during his presidency in dealing with the pandemic at all.

At the end of his term he started to acknowledge it and said, "I could have done much, much more. I didn't understand the significance of the pandemic." And now he's doing a lot. [Since] he left government, he's now very very active ….

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