- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2000

South African President Thabo Mbeki's state visit was dogged by controversy over his decision to include dissident scientists, some of whom question the link between HIV and AIDS, in an official government commission on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Mr. Mbeki made himself the target of heated, personal attacks by those who assume that his insistence on including these dissidents on the panel signals secret agreement with them.
The attack on Mr. Mbeki is unwarranted. His critics read into his actions the unspoken messages an American politician would send by such a decision. But Mr. Mbeki is not an American, he is South African. His actions must be interpreted in the context of his own cultural and political traditions.
In 1994 South Africans achieved what we all wanted a democracy in which the black majority has full rights. That achieved, it was inevitable that the country is now governed in accord with the cultural, social, and political values and traditions of the African majority.
The core building block of black South African society is the "indaba" or "lekgotla." Whenever a family, community, or nation confronts a serious internal or external threat, they call a meeting of all parties to the controversy for a protracted discussion to find a consensus.
Long before the first Europeans arrived, black South Africans had created a society in which freedom of thought and expression were established human rights. Moreover, "ubuntu" a deeply-rooted South African tradition that all human beings have a right to be treated with compassion, respect, and dignity requires that everyone's views be treated with respect and dignity at the "indaba."
Another deeply rooted tradition in South African culture is an emphasis on reconciling the conflicting parties and on maintaining harmony. Throughout known history, black South Africans governed themselves, not by autocratic leaders or by allowing a bare majority to have its way, but by the negotiated consensus that emerges from an "indaba." With the exception of certain periods in Zulu history, the leadership traits black South Africans value most are gentle strength and the ability to reconcile conflicts in the community.
These traditions are the root of all the good things we praise today in South Africa. From 1990 to 1994, South Africans held what was essentially a four-year "indaba" at which every point of view was represented. They talked and negotiated day and night until they reached a consensus that led to the 1994 democratic elections. Because they found that consensus, South Africa is a remarkably stable country despite what would otherwise be explosive ethnic, political, and economic conditions.
Outsiders who do not understand the country wrongly assume Nelson Mandela's emphasis on reconciliation was his personal agenda. For years, they ominously questioned what happens after Mr. Mandela, not seeing that his popularity was due to his emphasis on reconciliation and consensus and reflected the epitome of black South African values and traditions.
This continues now that Mr. Mandela has retired. With two-thirds of the National Assembly, President Mbeki and his African National Congress could simply ignore the other parties. That is what Democrats or Republicans would do with such a majority. But the ANC does not. It negotiates and compromises with the minority parties simply because that is the South African way of governing.
Faced with an HIV/AIDS crisis that threatens every dream they have for their country, Mr. Mbeki and his people are simply holding the "indaba" their traditions require to reach a consensus on what to do.
Mr. Mbeki never said that he personally believes an HIV condition does not lead to AIDS or that it is not transmitted by sexual contact. He insists only on according dissident views the ancient right to speak and be given a respectful hearing. Such views have strong supporters within South Africa, and thus must be represented at the "indaba" if a national consensus is to be found.
Mr. Mbeki's government faces extraordinarily painful decisions on how to allocate increasingly scarce health care resources. There is a severe shortage of doctors and other health care workers, a shortage not helped by U.S. government programs that encourage South African doctors to emigrate to the United States. To deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis, doctors and other medical staff must be diverted from other equally crucial health care needs. Allocating these resources is a heartbreaking exercise in triage.
What South Africans need from us is not our judgments on what they are doing, but a re-examination of what we can do to provide real assistance in their crisis.

Philip Christianson is a former adviser on Africa to both the House and Senate subcommittees on Africa.

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