Former South African president criticized for AIDS comments
Thabo Mbeki gestures at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 11, 2003. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP)
Christopher Torchia, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, March 8, 2016 12:32PM EST
JOHANNESBURG -- A decade ago, South Africa was in crisis, struggling with AIDS and widespread criticism of the president at the time for a policy blamed for the early deaths of several hundred thousand South Africans from the disease. Now that former leader, Thabo Mbeki, faces fresh scrutiny for defending his old pronouncements about the disease.
The comments by Mbeki, who was ousted in a political shakeup in 2008, are a grim flashback for South Africans who recall the heavy toll inflicted by AIDS in conjunction with, critics say, the government's decision to withhold antiretroviral drugs that would have kept AIDS patients alive and instead promote garlic and beet treatments.
AIDS was the most significant cause in a drop in South African life expectancy to 52 in 2005, down from around 60 years in 1990. The country's life expectancy is now around 61 years, largely reflecting the positive results of a robust rollout of the drugs after Mbeki left office. Today, South Africa says its antiretroviral treatment program is the largest in the world; more than 6.4 million people in South Africa live with HIV, according to 2014 data.
Mbeki, who had questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, said in a Monday post on his foundation's website that nutrition was critically important and that antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs, should be used "with great care and caution."
He repeated an allegation that pharmaceutical companies wanted to sell products "at prices which the well-off white South African population could afford," noting his administration's efforts to push down the price.
"They would price their products in South Africa bearing in mind that South Africa serves as a role model for other developing countries, and as commercial companies they have no choice but to pursue the profit motive! From all this you can see why it was absolutely necessary for 'the AIDS industry' that South Africa was whipped into line so that it sets an example by being an enthusiastic purchaser of ARVs!" Mbeki wrote.
South Africa emerged from white minority rule after all-race elections in 1994. Mbeki, an anti-apartheid leader who had lived in exile for many years, railed with other African leaders against what some termed foreign interference that echoed the colonial era in Africa.
Some groups, however, sought to donate medication for South African patients with AIDS, and drug prices also dropped. The South African government was accused of blocking effective treatment for many of its desperate citizens. A Harvard study concluded that more than 330,000 lives were lost "because a feasible ARV treatment program was not implemented in South Africa."
The Treatment Action Campaign, a South African group that promotes access to AIDS treatment, said Mbeki had refused to take responsibility for his flawed policy.
"The important point, and the point Mbeki still refuses to face, is that he intentionally delayed the introduction of life-saving treatment to the people he was trusted to serve," the group said in a statement on Tuesday.
Referring to Mbeki's commentary, a group established by the government to address health threats urged South Africans to avoid "a debate that will take us back to a fractious past and can only serve as a distraction."
The group, the South African National AIDS Council, said it is looking forward to an international AIDS conference in July in the South African city of Durban. The office of President Jacob Zuma said the conference will be an opportunity "to mark the progress we have made in fighting the AIDS epidemic."