Mandela, back in the maelstrom
An interview with South Africa's living legend
In the past four months, Nelson Mandela has made a reluctant political comeback.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."