Mandela, back in the maelstrom

An interview with South Africa's living legend

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In the past four months, Nelson Mandela has made a reluctant political comeback.

Already a living legend, the former president – and hero of the antiapartheid movement – has thrust himself back into the rough and tumble of South African politics over a highly controversial issue: HIV/AIDS.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has taken international criticism for a policy that fails to make AIDS drugs available nationwide in public hospitals, including to pregnant HIV-positive women.

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President Thabo Mbeki has, in the past, questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, a view that has damaged South Africa's image.

Now Mr. Mandela is back, politically. Not that he has been idle since he left the presidency three years ago. He had maintained a hectic schedule of meetings and active leadership of his foundations, which build schools and clinics and help youth. Until late last year, Mandela was also facilitating efforts to find a political compromise in Burundi's civil war.

About two years ago, he began withdrawing from South African politics. Now, in an interview, Mandela makes clear that he hopes to change the perception that the ANC does not care about the sick.

"The tragedy is that the poorest of the poor cannot go to doctors and private clinics," says Mandela.

"They can only go to public hospitals and the policy of the government applies to public hospitals, where [these poor people] have no access [to certain AIDS medications].

"It is because of this that we have created the impression that we don't care for the people who are dying. That is a matter of concern to me.

"The only way of meeting that criticism is to say: We are conducting our scientific research, and when we have completed it, we will make our findings public.

"But in the meantime, people should be free to go to anybody who, they think, will help them with their illness....

"[W]e want people to regard themselves as free to go to public hospitals to help themselves. This is the only way that we can remove the impression that we don't care for the lives of people who are dying," Mandela said.

Although Mr. Mbeki has questioned the HIV link to AIDS, his government's policy is based on the assumption of a link. Mbeki has further stirred controversy by repeatedly questioning the accuracy of HIV/AIDS statistics and projections, and by portraying the primary cause of disease in South Africa and the rest of Africa as poverty and underdevelopment.

Mbeki's views have tended to create ambiguity around government policy, and prevented the rallying of considerable human resources against the epidemic. Analysts say that, in part, Mbeki fears the economic consequences of providing universal access to drug therapy.

Mandela's first intervention came in December, when he praised African leaders working to break taboos regarding sexual conduct and confronting HIV/AIDS.

Now, without citing Mbeki by name, Mandela frequently tells stories about leaders who recognize their mistakes and change for the better. He tells how, when he took office, he did not want to be surrounded by lapdogs and yes-men. These anecdotes are viewed as implied criticism of his successor.

In February, Mandela rocked the country – and the ANC – with a call for universal access to anti-retroviral drugs, which would place a potentially huge burden on the state.

Mandela is adamant about his campaign to change the perception that the ANC is an uncaring party. "I am going to be the last person to be accused of having divided my organization," he said. "I will take the right stand, but I will fight inside [the ANC]. I have confidence that we will reach a settlement."

And then Mandela returned to one of his favorite themes: whether there is enough open debate within the ANC.

WILL South Africa remain on the course of multiparty democracy, despite an overwhelmingly powerful ruling party?

"As long as the ANC respects free and fair discussion – inside and outside the ANC – and listens carefully to the views of other decisionmakers, there is no danger in the ANC becoming stronger than it is at the moment," Mandela said.

Responding in the interview to whether he was concerned by a spate of articles in international magazines – including Newsweek and The Economist – that were highly critical of Mbeki and his government's AIDS policy, Mandela returned to the theme.

"I am keen that the president, the ANC, and the government should project a favorable image, and I will do everything within my power to ensure that we achieve that," Mandela said.

"But this is a democratic world and people are perfectly entitled to express themselves on matters of public policy whether it's in internal or foreign organizations.

"You must remember that I have said that a free press is the essence of democracy. If we take objection to the extent of stifling the freedom of the press to express itself, then we are killing democracy.... So I welcome such criticism, even if I don't agree with it."

• John Battersby, a former Monitor correspondent, is group political editor of Independent Newspapers in South Africa.

'We speak with one voice'

Earlier this month, Nelson Mandela carried out a remarkable act. He kept a long-standing engagement at the Voortrekker Monument, a memorial to the diehard Afrikaners who went on an unchartered safari into the country's harsh interior in the 1830s rather than live under British rule.

During the latter part of the apartheid era, the monument became a gathering place for the most right-wing groups. Today most Afrikaners keep their distance from this emotive symbol.

Mr. Mandela was invited to make the keynote speech at a ceremony honoring a Boer hero, Danie Theron. Speaking initially in Afrikaans, the language of the Boers, he expressed his admiration for Afrikaners in their stand against British rule and conceded that his own development as a freedom fighter had been molded by reading about Boer generals.

"That we have had grave and deep differences with some of the political leaders from this [Afrikaner] community and with the racial policies emanating from them in no way detracts from our sense of appreciation of the role of Afrikaners in building our common land," he said.

In an interview Mandela was asked whether the sense of unity that he cherished was visible as he moved around the country.

"The most outstanding characteristic of South African society is that we have marginalized the right wing and we have been able to unite our people," said Mandela.

"There are still pockets of resistance, but they are few and far between. Let us wipe them out firmly and without compromise," he said.

"But let's not lose the proper perspective. The main picture is that we are united in South Africa. We speak with one voice. People who are active and want to mobilize society will succeed."

This is Mandela, the visionary and the statesman. Now he divides his time between the maelstrom of politics and his work as a symbol of reconciliation in the land he loves so dearly.

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