Interview part two: Focus interviewed Peter Mokaba shortly before his death

A dissonant voice on Aids: Patrick Laurence interviews Peter Mokaba.

Former ANC Youth League chairman Peter Mokaba is a man who is wont to make controversial statements. Even so, his admission on a sensitive and contentious issue during an interview at his home in Johannesburg is at once startling and mind-focusing.

He describes the widely acclaimed April cabinet statement on AIDS policy as a political statement designed to defuse growing opposition to the government's reluctance to provide anti-retroviral drugs to AIDS sufferers in public hospitals. His disclosure reinforces the scepticism expressed by the minority of observers who doubt that the cabinet statement marks a decisive reversal in government thinking.

Though Mokaba is not a member of cabinet, his views cannot be dismissed as those of a person of little consequence in the ANC. He is the head of elections in the ANC and thus a party official who plays a central role in determining ANC strategy in the pending 2004 general election.

"The statement of the government is mainly, really, if we are honest, a political statement," Mokaba says.

"If you look at the ANC statement, if you look at the government statement, you will see that what we are saying is, 'If there are people (AIDS sufferers and activists) who believe in these things (anti-retroviral drugs), then, as (Nelson) Mandela says, give them the drugs, let them take responsibility for taking them."

Deconstruction of his admission leads to a stark conclusion: government commitments in the cabinet statement are prompted by political expediency rather than conviction. Hence, logically, they are reversible if the exigencies of political expediency change in the future.

It is opportune to recall that the commitments are to:
· Provide the anti-retroviral drug Nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women in public hospitals that have the required capacity, pending a ruling on government's application to the Constitutional Court against a High Court instruction to do so.
· Aim at a "universal roll-out" of the drug by December and offer anti-retroviral drugs to rape victims who seek help at public health facilities.

Mokaba's admission is offered as an explanation for an apparent anomaly during a long exposition of his and - judging from his recurring use of "we" - government's thinking on HIV-AIDS. Juxtaposed in uneasy proximity are his repeated emphases on the toxicity and concomitant risks of anti-retroviral drugs and government's April commitment to make them available to AIDS sufferers who want them.

Mokaba reiterates many of the views expressed in the ANC's controversial discussion document, "HIV-AIDS and the Struggle for the Humanisation of the African". The document, which he helped draft, has been circulating in ANC structures since January. The views expressed in it converge with the contentions propagated by dissident scientists on the disease: anti-retroviral drugs are highly toxic, the causal link between HIV and AIDS is merely hypothetical, and acquired immune deficiency - which Mokaba does not deny exists - has many causes, chief of which is poverty and the diseases it nurtures.

Mokaba, who himself was seriously ill in the first half of 2000, repeats the assertion in the document that the immediate past presidential spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, was killed by the "poison" introduced into his body by the anti-retroviral drugs that he was "persuaded" to take.

"I stick with that," Mokaba says in a voice that for the whole interview is pitched at a level which requires concentrated listening. "I know Parks did not have AIDS. That is the fact of the matter. But he was given anti-retrovirals. He was advised to take them. When he died there was no virus in his body. The only way he could have died is through (the pharmacological action of) anti-retrovirals."

Quoting unnamed doctors and scientists, he insists that anti-retroviral drugs do not attack and overcome the underlying cause of immune suppression, that, at best, they merely delay death. They offer the AIDS sufferer little or no hope beyond postponing the grim reaper's victory. He has a problem - or, as he puts it, "a gripe" - with the heavy stress on AIDS as a sexually transmitted disease.

"(Young AIDS sufferers) don't know how to deal with it. They can't tell their parents. What is the story behind it? 'You have been promiscuous. You are sleeping around. You are either a prostitute or a man who has no morals. That is why you are sick.
"They are terrorized. They say, 'I got it from society. I will return it to society'. So you have groups of young people in the townships going around raping women. Or you have groups of young men going around raping children. They think, 'AIDS is sexually transmitted, so we will get healed if we sleep with a virgin'. Some kill themselves … commit suicide. They think, 'It is useless to fight. If you are HIV positive, you must know that there is no escape."

Mokaba's convictions appear to have blinded him to any counter view. He will not or cannot entertain an alternative explanation for the despair and anger that he describes. But judging from the street protests organised by AIDS activists, AIDS sufferers regard anti-retroviral drugs as their only hope, whatever the risks of taking them. Extrapolation from their slogans and posters, locates the cause of their anger in the government's reluctance to provide them with anti-retroviral drugs beyond the 18 designated pilot sites. Their anger, moreover, seems to be focused on government leaders, rather than society in the abstract.

Judge Edwin Cameron, who is HIV positive, has articulated a contrary view to that propagated by Mokaba (and, on occasion, by President Mbeki, who is suspected of having made a major input to the discussion document). Cameron has attributed his capacity to continue in his demanding work as a judge to his ability to pay for expensive drugs to contain the HIV invasion of his body. He has publicly and movingly linked his statement to a plea to the government to help poorer people who are either HIV-positive or living with AIDS by making anti-retroviral drugs more freely available.

Mokaba, however, is seemingly unimpressed. When he is reminded of Cameron's public testimony, he ripostes: "But he (Cameron) has also said he is losing the battle". A follow up jab is delivered soon afterwards against Zachie Achmat, another high profile person who had campaigned vigorously for a change in government policy on AIDS. Mokaba says of Achmat, a prominent leader of the Treatment Action Campaign: "(He) will not take anti-retroviral drugs. But he advises others to take them".

Mokaba's staunch defence of his position on HIV-AIDS is motivated by what he sees as racism in the orthodox HIV-causes-AIDS position and the associated belief that anti-retroviral drugs should play a prominent role in the treatment of those suffering from the disease.

He refers to a report published in The Star in January. According to his synopsis of the report, it quotes scientists as predicting that HIV will decimate black Africans (and their racial brethren living beyond their ancestral continent) because they lack a gene possessed by white Africans (and their racial kinsmen across the globe). Mokaba comments derisively: "They have not found the (HIV) virus but they already know the way in which it will be selective". He asks incredulously: "It will affect Africans alone? What kind of disease in life has ever done that?"

In the same scornful but low decibel tone he outlines the history of theory about the origins of AIDS, depicting in it an anti-black racist agenda. As he puts it, "Even the story of HIV developed in a very racist way".

He traces the trail that leads from the United States to Africa: AIDS was discovered as "a gay disease" in the United States; then it was blamed on the mainly black Haitians (who are alleged to have brought it to US); next, after, an interlude during which the self-declared HIV-positive black American basketball star Magic Johnson attracted much media attention, it was located in Africa. He avers that at that stage most scientists chorused, "We must go to central Africa. It is coming from there".

Reiterating that the "finger is pointed at Africa", he continues his exposition. "They say, 'AIDS in America differs from … AIDS in Africa. In Africa you don't need to test anyone for (AIDS)… They apply the Banqui definition to Africa and say, 'You are thin, you have pneumonia, you are sweating, you are vomiting, you are coughing… you are a victim of AIDS. There is no need for (medical) tests. It is too expensive."

It is perhaps relevant to understanding Mokaba's angry susurrations to note in parenthesis that Banqui is the capital of the Central African Republic, which - though Mokaba does not make the point himself - became a symbol of "African barbarism" to conservatives in the rich countries of Europe and North America when its self-declared emperor, Jean Bokassa, reportedly ate one of his political foes.

There is little doubt, however, that his illness in the first half of 2000 affected him strongly and contributed to his emergence two years later as one of the most visible dissident sympathizers in the ANC's leadership corps. During the period when he felt desperately ill for undiagnosed reasons, he disappeared from the public arena to seek solace and a cure at his home in the Northern Province (which has since been renamed Limpopo).

Mokaba recalls that doctors were unable to identify the cause of his illness, though one pharmacist told him that his blood pressure was so high that he should not even be alive.

He tells, too, of media reports that he was dying of AIDS. He relates with a chuckle that one report even recorded his death. He remembers a visit "by people" who wanted him to publicly acknowledge that he had AIDS, arguing that by doing so he would strike a blow against sceptics in the ANC who questioned the severity of the AIDS threat and offer hope to AIDS sufferers who were dying unnecessarily as a consequence. He says he rejected their pleas for two reasons: first, his illness was not AIDS, whatever else it might be, and, second, the support he got from friends and well wishers, clergymen and their congregants among them, and his confreres in the ANC, including, pre-eminently, "Comrade Thabo (Mbeki)".

Mokaba remembers a telephone call from Mbeki, in which the President said: "No, you can't die. Give me a last chance. Let us see what we can do". He recollects that, apart from organizing a morale-boosting visit from Limpopo Premier Ngoako Ramathlodi, Mbeki marshalled a "formidable medical team" to examine him. Reflecting on that visit, Mokaba says: "In three days they helped me to life". He acknowledges his debt to Mbeki: "He is the person who refused to let me die. I am grateful".

There is no doubting Mokaba's gratitude to Mbeki. Whatever disappointment he felt when he lost his position as Deputy Minister of Tourism and Environment after Mbeki succeeded Mandela, he remains a loyal Mbeki man. He does not harp on his role in helping Mbeki win the struggle to succeed Mandela as president. Mokaba's appointment as ANC head of elections indicates that he has regained Mbeki's confidence.

But Mokaba's recounting of his battle against his mysterious illness - which he now says was identified as a lung infection by Mbeki's medical team - conveys the strong impression that he believes that he contributed to his own recuperation. He remembers saying to himself, "I have to be strong. That is the only way to defeat (the rumours) that I am dying of AIDS". He talks of long 28 km walks between the village of Mankweng and Pietersburg (now renamed Polokwane) and of eating "fresh vegetables". He acknowledges the moral support of his mother Priscilla ("a very strong woman") and his sister, and of those who prayed for him.

There is an underlying but unarticulated assumption in his account of his illness. It permeates the pauses between his thoughts, fills the spaces between the lines of his narrative, as it were. It can be summed up succinctly: if he had heeded the advice of those who thought he had AIDS and agreed to take anti-retroviral drugs, he would be dead today, like his former comrade in arms during the struggle against apartheid, Mankahlana.

The inference to be drawn from his articulated exposition is that he is a formidable, even fanatical, opponent for those who believe that the dissident view of the HIV-AIDS threat is a dangerous illusion with potentially calamitous consequences for South Africa.