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The Presidential Silence on Parks

The death of the Parks Mankahlana, suspected to have been caused by AIDS, rates as one of the cruelest ironies of the Mbeki presidency – a presidency that questioned the link between the HI virus and AIDS and earned itself the epithet ‘denialist’.

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2000.

Parks Mankahlana

When it was announced last Thursday [5 October 2000] that presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana had passed away from ‘a long illness’, there can have been few people who took this euphemism at face value. In political circles rumours have long persisted that Mankahlana was suffering from AIDS, but to date these suggestions have not been officially confirmed – and one wonders if they ever will be

While tributes to the late lamented Mankahlana have poured in both from within government and outside, the presidency has stayed silent on the cause of death of one of its most devoted representatives, as it habitually does when it comes to the topic of illnesses and their causes.

Unofficially, an ANC source confirmed to the Mail Guardian that Mankahlana had died of ‘an illness induced by HIV/AIDS’. Officially, however, the response was somewhat different. The presidency's communications department, which Mankahlana had headed, told the newspaper that ‘[t]he question of his illness is something that the family should deal with, and we respect that’.

In one sense, it would seem hard-hearted to fault the reasoning underlying this official response. Yes, of course, it is the grieving family's prerogative to do as they see fit with their knowledge of Mankahlana's cause of death; whether or not they choose to disclose it is a matter for their own judgement. And neither does one want to be ungenerous to the presidency's communications officials, who are presumably feeling the loss of their former colleague and comrade.

But it is hard to escape the suspicion that the presidency is, amongst other things, capitalising on the general hush of polite restraint with which outsiders approach the recently bereaved, and that it is perhaps disingenuously steering a potential political embarrassment in the public domain into the private sphere, where the onus for disclosure of cause of death would fall on Mankahlana's relatives rather than government.

It is a tactic that becomes all the more visible when seen in the light of ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama's recent attacks on the Democratic Alliance (DA) for placing HIV/AIDS issues at the forefront of its election platform. Certainly the DA's campaign has elements of crude politicking, but Tony Leon's defence – in essence that the AIDS issue must be addressed by public debate – stands in contrast to Ngonyama's apparent suggestion that contesting these issues in the public domain amounts to foul play.

Ngonyama's standpoint in this regard is deeply ironic, considering that it was President Mbeki himself who so spectacularly – and infamously – turned AIDS into the defining political question of his presidency by casting doubt on the causal link between the HI virus and AIDS. But however ironic Ngnonyama's attack on the DA is, it cannot compare to the irony – and tragedy – of Mankahlana's death if he did, as seems highly likely, die of AIDS.

The presidency, to repeat, is keeping mum on the cause of death, in deference to Mankahlana's grieving family. But for all its air of respectability this silence is cause for concern, not least because it serves to reinforce the stigma around AIDS that government publicity campaigns are supposedly trying to demystify. The question is not primarily whether HIV-infected public figures should be morally obliged to divulge their illness in order to publicise the far-reaching extent of the epidemic, or even whether AIDS-fatalities should posthumously have their privacy violated. The question is a simpler one: why the silence? And if it in fact wasn't HIV/AIDS that killed Mankahlana, why not come out and say so? In one reading of the affair, the answer is equally simple: political expediency.

It is difficult to retrace the twists and turns of Mbeki's engagements over the past months with the ‘HIV-causes-AIDS’ conspiracy theory/complacent scientific consensus. We have heard everything from CIA plots and pharmaceuticals fat cats to the views of ‘experts’ who believe that AIDS is a genocidal plot masterminded by extraterrestrial invaders; there have been off-the-record claims of pressure being exerted on statutory bodies from the highest levels to induce them to toe the party line. Recently we heard health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang duck and dive in outrage as Radio 702 talk-show host John Robbie pursued her with the question: Does HIV cause AIDS?

The interview was not without pathos. Who could fail to sense the invidiousness of Dr Tshabalala-Msimang's position? Caught between a rock and a hard place, she doggedly refused to contradict the President but at the same time kept appealing to Robbie to check her record on AIDS, which would presumably have answered his question in the affirmative. Read between the lines, she implied: hear what it's not possible for me to say directly.

Throughout these incidents and convolutions Parks Mankahlana was there, playing his role as presidential spin-doctor and front-line trooper in the AIDS polemic: given Mbeki's press-shy policy of presidency-by-remote-control, Mankahlana often lent more of a face and voice to the presidency than the President himself. And if the AIDS controversy placed Tshabalala-Msimang in an invidious position, one can only wonder what curious space, what psychological entanglement, Mankahlana inhabited in his final months. It is ‘so sad, because he was made to play the clown for the king,’ an unnamed member of the public told the Mail Guardian on learning of Mankahlana's death.

And here lies the rub. To be sure, if the presidency hasn't confirmed that HIV causes AIDS, it hasn't entirely disconfirmed this hypothesis either; then again, Mbeki has famously remarked that ‘a virus can't cause a syndrome’. When all is said and done, when the tributes have been paid and the heart-felt condolences expressed, it must be hugely problematic and demoralising for the presidency to have someone – its well-paid and poverty-free chief spokesman, for instance – go out and die, reputedly of the very same virus whose alleged causal centrality it has set out to debunk. Better to batten down the hatches and wait in silence for things to blow over.

So often caricatured, fairly and unfairly, as farce, the presidential office and its players have been invested with the gravity of Shakespearean tragedy – and with the resonance of tragic irony, where words carry unforeseen meanings that rebound on their speakers.


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