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UMass-Boston prof critical of South African leaders

Talia Whyte | 2/13/2009, 6:45 a.m.

Fourteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa has emerged as one of the continent’s premier powers. But it is still a country in transition. Racial strife between the country’s white minority and the black majority is still a problem, and new challenges, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and widespread violent crime, are draining the country’s resources.

In fact, there are some critics who believe the new South Africa may actually be in worse shape than it was under the apartheid regime.

Padraig O’Malley, an activist, author and professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, is one of those critics. During a lecture last Wednesday at the University of Massachusetts Club, O’Malley discussed how corruption within the African National Congress (ANC) has ruined the country.

One of the world’s leading experts on conflict resolution, O’Malley has written extensively on promoting dialogue in divided societies, including South Africa. In 1992, he invited prominent South African officials to Boston for a meeting with representatives of the factions in Northern Ireland. Four years later, he helped arrange a second meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, attended by South Africans Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC and Roelf Meyer of the white National Party.

But for all his work over the past two decades to unite the “Rainbow Nation,” O’Malley now says he feels that his labors have been fruitless, and he has all but given up trying to deal with the new leaders running South Africa.

“The new South Africa has no moral compass,” he said.

During his 40-minute talk, O’Malley blasted individual South African politicians and their supporters for the allowing their country to free fall into an abyss of black-on-white racism and “crony capitalism.” He also decried most of South Africa’s new black elite for failing to criticize the problems caused by government officials.

O’Malley’s first victim was current South Africa President Thabo Mbeki, whom the professor claims is out of touch with the realities of the country, largely because Mbeki did not live in South Africa during most of the apartheid era and was educated in the United Kingdom. Thus, O’Malley concludes, Mbeki only cares about the interests of upper middle class blacks.

But what really infuriates O’Malley are Mbeki’s unorthodox views about HIV/AIDS.

Though he was once an ardent HIV/AIDS advocate, upon assuming the presidency in 1999, Mbeki declared that HIV did not cause AIDS. Instead, he said he believed the illness was a “disease of poverty,” a belief allegedly based on Internet research and discussions with dissident scientists.

Because of the president’s views, South Africa’s health ministry was reluctant to provide antiretroviral drugs to treat those living with HIV. Instead, it tried to promote healthy eating as a way to fight the epidemic.

In July 2002, however, the South African AIDS activist organization Treatment Action Campaign won a case against the nation’s government. The Constitutional Court of South Africa ordered Mbeki’s government to make the antiretroviral drug nevirapine available to pregnant women to help prevent mother-to-child-transmission of HIV.

Despite the presence of free medication being provided by many international drug companies to South Africans in need, the health ministry is still reluctant to make antiretrovirals available to all.

But the blame extends beyond Mbeki, according to O’Malley.

“More pathetic than Mbeki was the ANC,” the country’s ruling political party, he said. “Not one ANC member questioned Mbeki or were prepared to sacrifice their seat. They all share responsibility in allowing the suffering of South Africans with AIDS. Their silence stole the revolution.”

Under the Mbeki administration, O’Malley said that South Africa tolerated political corruption, a tendency embodied in the recent career of Jacob Zuma.

In June 2005, Mbeki relieved Zuma, then deputy president of the ANC, of his post due to allegations that Zuma accepted bribes in a $4.8 billion 1999 strategic arms deal. Six months later, in December 2005, Zuma was charged with raping a 31-year-old woman that he knew was HIV-positive. During his trial, Zuma admitted to having unprotected sex with the woman, but claimed the encounter was consensual. He also said he took a shower after the encounter to “cut the risk of contracting HIV.”

Despite these highly public situations, Zuma was elected the new president of the ANC in December, putting him in line to become the next president of the country when elections come in 2009.

Mere days after his ascension to the party’s leadership position, however, Zuma was charged with racketeering, money laundering, fraud and corruption stemming from the 1999 arms deal. His trial is scheduled to begin in August. If Zuma is convicted, he will be ineligible to become president.

O’Malley also said he is disappointed, but not surprised, that both Mbeki and Zuma continue to support Robert Mugabe’s controversial reign in Zimbabwe. Many Africans feel obligated to support Mugabe because of his history of being a staunch anti-colonial leader, O’Malley said, and those who criticize Mugabe are considered racist. Even Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was labeled an “icon of white elites” by Mbeki after he spoke out against the ANC not taking a stand against Mugabe.

“Mugabe is one of the worst people to come out of Africa,” O’Malley said. “He lacks respect for his fellow Africans. He has destroyed his country, and South Africa allows it to happen.”

Peter Kovac, a UMass-Boston junior who traveled to South Africa in January, agreed with the thrust of O’Malley’s lecture.

“There is a disconnect between the government and the people who elect them,” Kovac said. “It seems like the voice of most South Africans are being muffled.”

O’Malley said he didn’t have any solutions for the country’s problems. But, he said, he is certain this is not the “new South Africa” many people wanted.

“Never did South Africans believe in so much, but get so little,” he said.