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".