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OPINION: Thabo Mbeki, The Unforgiven

In a quintessential South African way, we had almost forgotten about and forgiven former president Thabo Mbeki's "academic questioning" that led to an estimated 365,000 HIV/Aids deaths under his watch from June 1999 to September 2008. With the current guy in power, Mbeki really seemed to be the more palatable and sorely missed option. But wait, he's back…

With "I am an African" blaring on radio stations as part of last year's anti-xenophobia campaigns, we all thought, "Geez, this guy wasn't that bad! He was smarter than the incumbent, he got a horrible deal at Polokwane, how could we have slid this far, how could we have let this happen?"

We forgot that he had actually paved the way for the incumbent with golden bricks, alienating governing party heavyweights, heavyweights who re-emerged once he had to make that embarrassing speech almost 16 years ago.

Since then one of those heavyweights went from being a union leader to the industrialist fingered for the Marikana massacre, who has since left his billions behind to emerge as South Africa's current president-in-waiting. The others were not as lucky, their persistent need to return to the ANC of old, the ANC that held the moral higher ground under Oliver Reginald Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and that ilk, gave up the good fight. Another was carried by his ambition and despite a few billion in the bank, went down in flames at Mangaung, to descend yet again to a cinder in the last Fifa presidential elections.

We thought Vavi was just a disgruntled, bitter man who no longer had a seat at the elaborate banquet table when he blamed the incumbent for succeeding at what the mighty apartheid government had failed to do; destroy Southern Africa's most powerful lobby group, the almighty Cosatu federation of trade unions. We figured that Malema's persistent, shoot-first-and-then-think mouth led to his expulsion as ANC Youth League president. Alas, we were wrong, the collateral damage that hurricane Msholozi has left in his wake, something none of us are unfamiliar with, extends from the rural hills of KwaZulu-Natal in Nkandla all the way to Saxonwold, to the gates of the much-loathed Gupta family.

With the ever-developing Sars Wars, Van Rooyen-gate, all the way to hijacked state entities and parastatals, South Africans have truly forgiven and forgotten when it came to the Mbeki question. In fact, the very people that turned on him that fateful spring, eight years ago - and I have heard them say this to me personally in a live broadcast radio interview - regret having replaced Mbeki with what we have now.

We are a mess and what better way to have a hero re-emerge than when the "villain" seems to be taking this delicately constructed house of cards apart with his lack of regard for the remaining 55-million of us? But then this newly re-discovered hero, albeit as imperfect as he was, wanted to rewrite history, a history most of us has since moved on from. We were ready to canonise him, he was relegated to memories of a time long since forgotten and Nkosi Johnson's needless death, along with so many other babies that were infected with HIV, due to mother-to-child infections, no longer caused tears to well up in our eyes.

He had to rub coarse salt over wounds that had barely scabbed over. At first we rolled our eyes and asked: "What is he on about? I mean, really, to be digging up all these old bones?" Then the subjects of his musings, some no longer yoked by the party line as active members of government, people who now also have an equal voice to the pension-collecting elder statesman, started firing back. This too we ignored, because it was after all 'their' politics.

Coarse salt it seems didn't hurt enough, he needed to go for the coup de grâce and pour battery acid on our collective wound. He went there, he actually tried to justify his crappy, beetroot, African potato and garlic infused HIV/Aidspolicy. All because antiquated research suggested that poor sub-Saharan diets made heterosexuals in southern Africa just as susceptible to HIV as gay men in the US and heroin addicts in Europe. This was at a time when HIV was referred to as the "Gay Cancer", a time when all we knew of the disease was that once you have it, you die. He simply wanted to protect us from the "Aids industry" so much so that he allowed his people to die as he, along with "Dr" Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, experimented with nutrition that would supposedly save those infected with HIV, yet failed more than 300,000 fold.

He "academically queried" the sinister origins of the virus as hundreds of thousands wasted away and died before they could claim to have truly lived. Even today, the sinister origins of the virus is under scrutiny as my social media timeline lights up every single day with another buffoon claiming that cannabis oil has cured everything from the common cold to HIV. Streaming videos claiming to expose the CIA-created virus in some dingy lab at Area 51 are filling up cyberspace exponentially as overeager X Files fans want to believe.

In other words we have gone from Planet Nibiru and alien reptilian race conspiracies to some Western government spending millions, if not billions of dollars, on developing a virus that can be prevented with the use of a simple tube of latex around the male member - the humble condom! Sadly, Mbeki with his "does HIV cause Aids?" question led us to this lunacy. And for the love of a higher power, even if he wanted to pursue this most intricate and clearly paramount academic question, why did he have to oversee the deaths of so many?

But he did not have to allow hundreds of thousands to die as he wanted to bring down the capitalist running dogs of the pharmaceutical industries. He could have adopted the Brazilian approach of completely disregarding intellectual property rights pertaining to antiretroviral treatment at the time and go the generic route.

Brazil made some serious enemies in the United States and Europe, but so did we when Mbeki told us to look the other way as Zimbabwe crumbled right under our noses, as we applied silent diplomacy, so silent that we were complicit in declaring a rigged election free and fair. So while Mr Mbeki allowed his people to die at rates only rivalled by genocide, Brazil as far back as 1996 made the decision to make antiretroviral treatments accessible to its people, no matter what it took. The HIV/Aids mortality rate had been reduced by half through concerted preventative and treatment solutions.

So we forgot and forgave, because we are in a mess, but we should actually thank Mr Mbeki for reminding us about how bad things were under his watch. It does not ease the heart now, but at least we will not canonise a small man who had supervised the deaths of so many. Yes, here and now, in the age of instant information, he is still unapologetic for the mess he helped create and worse of all, for all those that could have been saved, but his intransigence killed.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to _ www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis._

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