Former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s character was a salient feature of his presidency. Accusations that he suffered from character flaws – such as being aloof and paranoid – were widespread at the time and have become part of the lore surrounding his time in office.
Some have gone as far as to argue that Mbeki would actively seek out critics to lash out against and humiliate. This is not all that is remembered about his character. He was also famously hard working as well as studious. And, some believe, he had the courage to stand his ground against the odds.
In a public letter campaign that kicked off at the beginning of 2016, Mbeki is disputing the negative labels attributed to him. He wants people to know that he is not aloof. Nor, he argues, was he a “paranoid” leader who was overly “sensitive to criticism”.
Some critics have responded by saying that Mbeki’s character is irrelevant. They argue that what really matters are the AIDS denialist policies he adopted during his presidency. These were based on his false belief that HIV does not cause AIDS – and they had tragic consequences.
But such criticisms miss the intimate connection between Mbeki’s character and his denialism. They also don’t take into account the impact that this connection has on assessing his moral responsibility.
When people do things with harmful consequences we might take them to be initially morally responsible until they offer a plausible excuse for their action. If the babysitter feeds a peanut butter sandwich to a child who has a nut allergy, we might hold her morally responsible for the harmful consequences until she provides a convincing excuse for why she did it.
One good excuse is ignorance. Perhaps the babysitter did not know about the allergy. But ignorance only succeeds as an excuse if such ignorance is not itself blameworthy. The babysitter is not going to get off the hook morally if she was explicitly warned about the allergy but was distracted by something trivial at the time and ignored what she was told.
Similarly, given how severe the consequences of Mbeki’s action were, there’s an initial case available for holding him personally morally responsible for the consequences of his denialism.
Hypothetically, he might then offer an excuse for his action and ignorance might provide an excuse. He might argue that had he really known HIV causes AIDS he would have made treatment available. Mbeki has never made such an attempt, but let us imagine the possibility.
The problem is that it seems unlikely an excuse of ignorance would be very convincing in this case.
Scientists explicitly disagreed
The international scientific community made its disagreement with him explicit in the form of the Durban Declaration, a petition signed by more than 5000 scientists that endorsed the mainstream scientific view on HIV and AIDS.
It is clear that Mbeki should have taken the objections from scientists seriously, given that they are the experts. But part of what went wrong in the Mbeki case was that he was confused about who exactly the real scientific experts were. He believed that the denialist scientists he supported were an oppressed minority group who had been unfairly treated by the scientific community – a feeling that was all too familiar to him emerging from the struggle against apartheid.
We could concede, albeit grudgingly, that maybe Mbeki’s confusion was understandable under the circumstances. But even when presented with the Durban Declaration, Mbeki didn’t step back and re-examine his views. This is an astonishing response.
It is almost a matter of received wisdom that you should at least pay attention to what the experts have to say on a matter even if you decide to go a different way when looking at all the evidence. Instead Mbeki’s spokesman Parks Mankahlana said shortly after receiving the declaration that it would:
… find its comfortable place among the dustbins of the office.
So why was Mbeki so unshakeable in his beliefs?
Within the disagreement literature in epistemology – the philosophical study of beliefs and knowledge – there is a position known as the “conciliationist view”. This argues that a person should revise their beliefs when encountering disagreement from their epistemic peers. An epistemic peer is anyone who has similar reasoning abilities to you and similar access to evidence.
The underlying idea here is that disagreement indicates one of you is wrong, and you cannot tell from the mere fact of disagreement which one of you that is.
If anyone would have counted as Mbeki’s epistemic peers, it would have been other members of the African National Congress. It is safe to assume that they had similar reasoning abilities to him and would have had access to similar evidence. What, then, was the state of disagreement with Mbeki from within the ANC? This is where it gets tricky.
There seems to have been very little explicit disagreement with Mbeki from within the party, even though some members did actually seem to disagree with him. By all accounts, this was because ANC members were afraid of him and it was understood that one had to toe the party line.
Ignoring disagreement from the international scientific community and creating a climate of fear speak exactly to the kind of character flaws that Mbeki is now trying to contest. They are also the kind of character flaws that prevented him from getting at the truth about HIV and AIDS and ultimately led to the tragedy of AIDS denialism in South Africa.
Mbeki ultimately relented and ARVs become available via the public health system in 2004, but this seems to have had more to do with legal intervention, rather than a change in Mbeki’s personal beliefs on the matter.
Mbeki has been notoriously unwilling to speak about the era of his AIDS denialism. Perhaps his letters, a clear attempt to redeem his character, are as close as we will get. Either way, his character is not irrelevant.