The anguish of Zweli Mkhize

John Kane-Berman says the ANC needs to reflect over whether it is making the same mistake with Zuma, that it did with Mbeki

My president, right or wrong

There is palpable anguish in the recent response of Zweli Mkhize, treasurer general of the African National Congress (ANC), to Thabo Mbeki's latest attempts to defend his handling of the HIV/AIDS crisis. As a medical doctor Dr Mkhize treated his first HIV/AIDS patient while in exile in 1987 - nearly 30 years ago.

He writes of the "devastation" he saw in Zimbabwe, where he treated members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, only to discover on his return to South Africa after 1990 that the situation in this country was worse. "A silent war was raging behind closed doors and in hospital wards," where the lives of "young, old, rich, and poor were being swept away". New cemeteries had to be opened. Some health workers left their jobs as a "spectre of helplessness in facing death the whole day started to take its toll".

Research eventually brought a glimmer of hope when new medication was shown to have beneficial effects on patients. But President Mbeki sowed doubt and confusion about the disease and its treatment, with the result that the fight against HIV/AIDS was "made unwinnable".  Attempts to enlist the help of Nelson Mandela were a failure, as "scurrilous attacks" on him in the ANC's national executive committee caused him to "retreat".

Dr Mkhize, who served as an MEC for health for 11 years, wants Mr Mbeki now to apologise for "leading the country astray". Maybe he should. But a simple apology by Mbeki would let the ANC itself off the hook too easily. Dr Mkhize admits to regrets that he himself defended Mr Mbeki. The fact that Mr Mandela - of all people - allowed himself to be silenced after having earlier taken a lead in the battle against AIDS does that towering figure no credit either.  

President Mbeki was not a dictator. When the ANC wanted to get rid of him in 2007, it did. The fact that his party did not call him to account on AIDS makes it complicit in all the lives that were lost and families destroyed.  Dr Mkhize says Mr Mbeki's reopening of the AIDS issue "has forced us again to walk the sad journey we would have preferred to leave to researchers and historians".

For all those who died, and for those they left behind, it is indeed a sad journey. But for all the politicians who were complicit in Mr Mbeki's behaviour, it is a shameful one. According to some estimates, probably conservative, as many as 330 000 AIDS deaths might have been averted had antiretroviral treatment been made available sooner.   

Part of the walk to which Dr Mkhize refers should be to see what lessons can be learnt for the future. Although different from the incomprehensible wickedness of the AIDS tragedy to which the ANC was party, President Jacob Zuma's behaviour is likewise something to which his party is now accessory.

In its desire to protect him from charges of fraud, corruption, and racketeering, the ANC used its parliamentary majority to abolish the Scorpions. It protected him again when it tried unlawfully to override the findings of the public protector that he be held liable for some of the expenses of his private residence at Nkandla. It continues to keep him in office despite the findings of the Constitutional Court that he failed to uphold the Constitution.  

There is a long history of the ruling party's failure to hold its leadership accountable. It is now more than 15 years since Parliament acquiesced in the Mbeki government's thwarting of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) when that body attempted to investigate malfeasance over the R44 billion arms deal announced in 1999.

Dr Mkhize confesses to having defended the indefensible under President Mbeki. As treasurer general of the ANC, he is now well placed to ask for how much longer he - and others - should continue to defend the indefensible under President Zuma.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.