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Nelson Mandela is no saint

Nelson Mandela is no saint

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

I know it’s the man’s 89th birthday, and he did lead the fight against the crimes of apartheid, but I can’t resist pointing out that the halo around former South African President Nelson Mandela ignores his shoddy record on many aspects of governance, and especially HIV/AIDS.

A recent article (free registration required) in the Lancet by Dr. Paul Zeitz, head of the Global AIDS Alliance, lays out the damning history. Although then-Vice President Thabo Mbeki (for years, an AIDS denialist) deserves most of the direct blame for South Africa’s 1990s AIDS disaster, it was Mandela who was ultimately in charge at the time. In 1996, his government spent 20 percent of its annual AIDS budget on “a contract for a theatre company to produce a show with questionable public-health messages,” according to Zeitz. Following that error in judgment, Mbeki pushed Virodene, an AIDS medicine produced in Africa, through the government’s approval process. Virodene was later deemed to be “unfit for human consumption.”

When Mandela turned over the reigns to Mbeki in 1999, 11.7 percent of South Africa’s adults had HIV/AIDS. Mandela has since expressed his regret over his government’s failure to grapple with this problem, and that’s welcome. His own son even died of AIDS in 2005, and the elder Mandela has become a fervent advocate for AIDS causes. So what’s the issue? Well, as noted in this morning’s Brief, Mandela is setting himself up, along with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, as one of the world’s wise men. Backed by Richard Branson’s millions, Mandela’s “Elders” will rain down rhetorical thunderbolts from their Olympean heights in order to highlight the world’s ignored causes. But let’s not forget that when he had real power to do something, it was Mandela himself who did the ignoring.