By 2009, Aids will have sent 6m South Africans to their graves. Why is the president doing nothing about it?by Chris McGreal / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Envisage South Africa at the end of this decade. Thabo Mbeki will have left office after ten years as president. Debate over the merits of his conservative economic policies or his vision for Africa’s revival will be a distant memory. Instead, South Africa will be reeling from a long-foretold catastrophe. By 2009, Aids will have dispatched roughly 6m to their graves, in a country of less than 50m people. The dead will mostly be in their thirties; 2m children will be orphans. Life expectancy will have plunged to 41 years. The consequences of a generation laid waste will overshadow life in every village and township.
If the predictions are accurate (and the scenario above is not the worst, only the most common) nothing short of a cure can save Mbeki’s reputation. He protests that all he has done is ask questions. But Mbeki questions whether it is happening at all. He claims Aids is not the largest killer in South Africa, that murder or heart disease take more lives. When he does admit that Aids is a problem, he doubts the link to HIV. If the disease does exist, Mbeki says, it is caused by poverty. He is not entirely alone. His supporters do not consist only of outright denialists. There are also Aids sceptics who argue that the methods of gathering information about the spread of the disease are unreliable and that the doomsday scenario has been, if not invented, then exaggerated.
The truth is that everyone involved with Aids-scientists, doctors, politicians-question the numbers. There are no definitive statistics as to how many people have died of the disease in Africa over the past two decades, let alone accurate predictions of how many more lives Aids will claim. Cape Town’s respected Medical Research Council (MRC) says more than 500,000 people have already died of Aids in South Africa (and that 40 per cent of all deaths between 15 and 40 are Aids-related). UNAids puts the toll at twice that number. Criticism of the figures has focused in part on the reliability of the Elisa (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) antibody tests which the UN uses to make forecasts about the epidemic. Sceptics say Elisa is up to 30 per cent inaccurate. The results can be affected by malaria, a problem in much of Africa (though not most of South Africa). Doubts are cast over how many TB deaths result from immune deficiency, and how many simply from TB.