Written by Athol Fugard
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Main Season · Thrust Stage
January 15–February 28, 2010
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Time magazine calls Athol Fugard “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world.” Now South Africa’s master dramatist comes back to Berkeley Rep with a new show: Coming Home. Ten years after running off to the city to pursue her dreams, Veronika returns in rags. Among her meager belongings, she carries a desperate secret—and determination to plant the seeds of a new life for her son. It’s a “sad, sweet, and gently moving” show, says the New York Times, “a beautifully acted production directed by Gordon Edelstein.” In Coming Home, Fugard once again confronts the hard truths of his homeland while celebrating the power of hope.
Athol Fugard · Playwright
Gordon Edelstein · Director
Eugene Lee · Scenic Design
Jessica Ford · Costume Design
Stephen Strawbridge · Lighting and Projection Design
Corrine K. Livingston · Sound Design
John Gromada · Original Compositions
Lynne Soffer · Voice and Speech Consultant
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Todd Yocher · Assistant to the Director
Tristan Jeffers · Assistant Scenic Design
Robert Rutt · Vocal Coach
Victoria Northridge · Studio Teacher
Mina Morita · Children’s Assistant
Kohle T. Bolton · Mannetjie Jonkers (Younger)
Lou Ferguson · Oupa Jonkers
Roslyn Ruff · Veronica Jonkers
Thomas Silcott · Alfred Witbooi
Jaden Malik Wiggins · Mannetjie Jonkers (Older)
“Beautifully performed…[Roslyn] Ruff and [Thomas] Silcott anchor the drama in performances riveting in nuanced watchfulness and unspoken subtext…South Africa’s pre-eminent playwright remains the eloquent conscience of the stage.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“The characters are so overflowing with color and life…To make an audience care, really care, about a few characters summoned for a few hours out of the ether by stagecraft is a remarkable thing.”—KALW-FM
“A gentle elegy to dashed dreams…Sensitively directed by Gordon Edelstein…Tiny moments echo with emotional intensity…Fugard’s gift for introspection, his ability to see the majesty in ordinary lives, remains unparalleled.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“It’s a dramatic masterpiece…A poignant, gripping drama…The cast is superb.”—KGO-AM
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Some playwrights are seers. Through the prism of their watchful eyes they take stock of the world, telling stories that reflect the values of our culture and the trends of our time. If they are especially gifted and resilient, their body of work starts to take on the look of a living history, a three-dimensional pictograph that chronicles our society. Over the course of time we see the arc of our lives: our dreams and behavior and psychology set against the backdrop of larger events, events we can’t entirely understand when they are occurring because of the limitations of our perspective. The playwright/seer widens the lens and enables us to see a larger picture.
South African playwright Athol Fugard is one such artist. His artistic strategy is deceptively simple. He examines the lives of “normal” people who want normal things: a young woman who lives on her grandfather’s farm wants to leave to pursue her dreams in the big city; a brother returns to his boyhood home seeking the comfort of his sibling; two ragged wanderers meet on a riverbank to scavenge for food. These are a few of the situations one finds in a typical Fugard play. The relationships of the central characters are always marked by deep intimacy and the endless yearning of one human heart to connect with another.
But over the course of these seemingly simple narratives, Fugard explores big, complicated issues. The young woman seeks a new, independent identity that is in revolutionary conflict with her grandfather’s old-school views of the world. The returning brother engages in power games with his sibling, which reveals a mountain of repressed racism. The two food scavengers turn out to be husband and wife, seeking to reclaim a shred of their former humanity. Everyday behavior, in Fugard’s plays, is always metaphorically potent, steeped as it is in the traumatic political history of South Africa. It is safe to say that his work has become the most important cultural record of the history of apartheid and the post-revolutionary modern era.
Coming Home is Fugard’s attempt to reconcile the dreams of the Mandela revolution with the violence and corruption that have marred that nation’s progress. A woman returns home with her child. Idealistic dreams have been replaced with sober realities. At stake is the fate of her children. At stake is the fate of a nation. Gordon Edelstein, the artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre and a longtime friend, brings a wealth of experience and talent to this moving and powerful story. He has directed many of Fugard’s plays, and the two have developed a deep and trusting relationship. They first worked on this piece at Long Wharf and have continued to work on the script with these talented actors and this team of designers. We are the lucky beneficiaries of their ongoing collaboration.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Three hundred and seventy-five classroom visits! That is how many times Berkeley Rep’s teaching artists were deployed to classrooms last season. They traveled from San Jose to Napa, from kindergartens to high schools. Demand for these programs has grown every year they have been offered, with new schools making requests each year. And what’s more, in many schools a visit to one classroom leads to requests from other teachers in that same school. Often teachers who ask us to visit one class invite us to return to that same class for follow-up presentations. When we evaluate these programs, repeat participation and increased demand for those programs is certainly an important sign of success.
Numbers, though, are only one indicator of accomplishment. We look at the quality of the classroom experience as well. We want to know that both the children and the teachers are able to learn from these programs. Are our visits enhancing the learning that is necessary for schools to achieve their academic goals? Are these programs contributing to reading comprehension? Are children learning fundamentals of writing: narrative, dialogue, character? Is the active learning improving their ability to internalize meaning? And are teachers being given new tools to enhance their own skills?
To judge from the feedback we get from schools, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. Students adore these programs, and their teachers value them as well. We hear from teachers, “My students loved this program! They were completely engaged…and I saw sides of some of my students I’ve never seen before.” Also, “This was an incredible program. The students were completely engaged and interested the entire time. Their comprehension was deepened with the acting of the play. I learned that I can use some of these strategies in my classroom.” It is no surprise to us that while children learn theatre skills, they also develop a capacity for critical thinking, empathy, collaboration and the pleasure of being recognized (and applauded) for work well done.
All of this is my way of sharing with you a program that we’ve found enriches the schools. In fact, we’ve found it so valuable that we’ve made the decision, in this time of such economic hardship, to make visits available to public schools at no cost. In addition, a group of very generous funders has made it possible to offer additional workshops and residencies at deeply subsidized rates.
If you are aware of a school that would benefit from this program, please encourage staff or administrators to contact us for a free visit. Or if you’d prefer, contact our School of Theatre and we will follow up with that school on your behalf.
We welcome your help in placing this program in schools, where it can genuinely make a difference.
Sifting through history: A look inside South Africa
By Rachel Viola
A nation rich in hope and diversity, South Africa’s history is rooted in conflict. The country has been reluctant to acknowledge its combined African and European heritage, responding hesitantly to devastating cultural episodes such as apartheid, diamond and gold mining corruption and slavery. Though not proud of these troubled moments, South Africans have, in recent years, finally been willing to examine this history. Stories of the people have emerged, charting the fraught trajectory of colonialism and its far-reaching implications.
Unlike the United States, where settlement by Europeans developed as a response to religious persecution, colonization of South Africa was grounded in economic interest. The Portuguese, who rounded the Cape in the late 15th century, sought a trade route to India. The Dutch followed hot on their heels, implementing slavery, establishing farmland and engendering conflict with indigenous South African people as their settlements stretched across the land. Over-extended, the Dutch fell prey to the colonial advances of Britain, whose primary interest in South Africa was securing a stronghold against France.
The British made a few adjustments within their new colony. They outlawed the buying and selling of African people, a trade that had been profitable for the Dutch. Britain went so far as to allot citizenship rights to newly freed Africans. (Slaves from India, who were still considered inferior, remained permissible.) With Dutch settlers, Britain seemed generous too, permitting retention of language, customs and legal systems. The Dutch saw that Britain was willing to make concessions and took the opportunity to push for self-governance in their settlements. Dutch nationalism grew exponentially more fervent with each successive generation. Seeking recognition for independent Dutch states within South Africa, colonists began to refer to themselves as Boers and then, finally, Afrikaners.
For Afrikaners, native-born South Africans with distinct Dutch heritage, politics were firmly grounded in national pride. The impact of British colonialism had reared its head during the South African War in the early 1900s when the Dutch once more advocated for autonomy. Conflicts with Britain devastated Boer settlements, especially when thousands of women and children were sent to concentration camps. Britain had granted land rights to formerly enslaved black South Africans, but not the Boers. In keeping with the racial prejudices of the day, the outraged Dutch claimed Britain deemed them inferior to natives.
The Dutch did ultimately establish “free states,” but a lasting anger would feed the formation of the apartheid regime, as Boer nationalism evolved into Afrikaner culture. The Afrikaners would later align with Fascist and Nazi ideals, as racism and nationalism merged in South African politics. However, mineral-rich Boer land in the eastern part of South Africa would give up findings advantageous enough to distract from these feelings until the next century.
Diamonds were discovered in 1867. They were unearthed in Kimberley and Johannesburg, two of the largest cities in Dutch territory. Gold was found in the same areas roughly 20 years later. The mining of the world’s most valuable minerals on Dutch-held land drove the British Parliament crazy, and they raced to install Cecil Rhodes, magnate of the notorious De Beers diamond company, as the first prime minister of the Cape Province. Given Rhodes’ personal investment in South Africa’s mines, he was expected to exert some semblance of control over diamonds and gold coming out of the Boer states. The plan backfired, touching off episodes of Anglo-Boer war as the Dutch defended their right to material wealth.
Though the British had enacted emancipation laws for African slaves, workers were now desperately needed in the mines. Indian slaves were forced into labor. This captured the attention of young Mohandas Gandhi, who arrived in South Africa in 1893 to address the situation. It was here that Satyagraha, Gandhi’s theory of passive resistance, was first put into practice, a response to inhuman mining conditions. Peaceful and violent protest in the Dutch mines prompted the British to reexamine their involvement in Boer states, and from 1908 to 1909 a National Convention met to discuss unification of the independent states comprising South Africa.
All the major parties of contemporary South African politics have their roots in the era of change which swept the country in the 1910s. Louis Botha was appointed as the first prime minister, armed with the intention to preserve ties to the British Empire. In 1912, two parties emerged with similar aims of promoting African independence: the African National Congress (or ANC, with whom Nelson Mandela would later be affiliated) and the National Party (NP). Their paths diverged, and the NP would implement a policy of apartheid when they came to power later in 1948.
Much has been written about the horrors and injustices of apartheid, in which the population of South Africa was segregated, and many ethnic groups were severely repressed. Organizations committed to change, equality and freedom were established, such as Mandela’s modernized ANC, which would initially follow Gandhi’s path of passive resistance. NP government responded quickly to the ANC’s peaceful protest, making civil disobedience punishable by prison sentence. Opposition parties were outlawed too, and then, one by one, all basic rights for black South Africans and Indians were stripped away.
The 1960s started with a whisper of hope from British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous “wind of change” speech. Macmillan spoke of African nationalism, advocating for political power distributed by merit, not skin color. South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd immediately rejected this, abolishing representation of Africans in Parliament, withdrawing from Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations, and establishing an independent South African Republic. The majority of the decade was colored in blood: the landmark shooting massacre at Sharpeville resulted in 70 deaths, and the ANC commanded by Mandela abandoned its commitment to peace, driven instead to acts of sabotage and violence. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason against the Republic; even Verwoerd himself was not exempt from the carnage and was stabbed to death in 1966.
Rife with protest and rebellion, the 1970s were marked by South Africa’s military occupations of Angola and Namibia, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. The United Nations revoked South Africa’s seat and forced an arms embargo against the country. Domestic chaos followed: police opened fire on peacefully marching schoolchildren, thereby instigating the Soweto riots. Cornelius Mulder, then leader of the NP, declared the aim of apartheid policy to be the total elimination of citizenship rights for black South Africans.
Soaring gold prices bolstered the national economy in the 1980s, offering greater financial stability. Political conditions also improved when South Africa accepted a plan for Namibian independence, and the existing NP senate disbanded, replaced by multiracial representatives working toward a new constitution. Parliamentary measures were adopted to ensure a system that invited participation of all citizens in a move toward modern democracy and away from the pre-existing British format. P.W. Botha (no relation to Louis) was appointed as the first executive state president and, by the end of the decade, he had repealed some of the most heinous legislation of apartheid. People of all races voted in local elections for the first time.
F.W. de Klerk replaced Botha as President in 1989, and in 1990 he released Mandela after 27 years in prison. By 1993, de Klerk and Mandela were jointly presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. Opposition parties were once again legal in South Africa, and the last remaining statutes of apartheid were repealed. ANC candidate Nelson Mandela was inaugurated President of South Africa in 1994, the same year the country rejoined the Commonwealth and reclaimed its seat in the United Nations. Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, which branded the apartheid movement a “crime against humanity.”
The ANC retained political power through the next decade, with Thabo Mbeki elected as president for two consecutive terms. South Africa became the fifth nation in the world, and the first in Africa, to acknowledge same-sex unions, and Mbeki stepped up government policy to combat corrupt officials, drug dealers and sexual predators.
Recent years have seen social setbacks. The current ANC leader, Jacob Zuma, was elected President in May of 2009, just prior to the first economic recession in 17 years. In townships surrounding urban areas, there has been turmoil over job availability and poor living conditions, with episodes of xenophobic violence against immigrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. Multiple unions protesting varied concerns have disrupted schools, hospitals and transportation in the biggest strikes since the end of apartheid. Zuma is trying to solve these problems by creating temporary public work opportunities and urging purchase of nationally manufactured goods. The eyes of the world will be trained toward South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, which seems both a vote of international confidence and a surefire economic stimulus. The stabilizing social effects of these types of events remain to be seen, but South Africans are optimistic the experience will help the country garner support for future decades of political calm, prosperity and success.
Athol Fugard’s art battles apartheid and AIDS
By Brad Schreiber
Athol Fugard is a novelist, actor, director, and first and foremost, one of the great playwrights in the world today. His roots in the Karoo, the arid, topographically unique landscape of South Africa, deeply inform his work. Fugard’s compassion for his characters is laced with a rage against the injustice of apartheid, a topic never polemical but always part of his lyrical plays like Blood Knot, “Master Harold”…and the Boys, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, and Tsotsi, the Oscar-winning film based on his novel. His work, despite threats from the government, eventually helped extend to the world a recognition of South African racist policies and the strengths and failures of the common people living under those policies. His play Coming Home addresses the newer South African scourge—AIDS. The London Telegraph, in a November 2008 story, estimates that more than 330,000 South Africans have died of AIDS due to the government refusing antiretroviral drugs. Avert.org claimed that as of 2007, there were 1,000 deaths a day and 5.8 million people living in South Africa with AIDS.
Fugard’s indignation at the wrongs of the world is tempered with a humility and graciousness that is truly striking. After a recent performance of Coming Home, he moved the audience with an impassioned talkback about the failures of his homeland and his love for the theatre. Below is an edited portion of our conversation on the phone, July 29, 2008.
Brad Schreiber: I hope you won’t mind talking a bit about AIDS and the government of South Africa, what has happened there and is happening there now, that influenced you to write this terrific and wonderful play.
Athol Fugard: There is no question about it, that thanks to the unbelievable idiocy, madness…of our former President Thabo Mbeki, and his minister of health, South Africa found itself dealing with a tragedy as great as any served up by the apartheid years…Now some real progress has been made in releasing the antiretroviral drugs to AIDS sufferers but even so, this battle against our pandemic is far from over. Because you know it’s not just a question of the finances involved, but we’re up against a traditional culture which at some level resists the wisdom of the scientists. It’s a very complex and a very difficult situation. But as I say, it has improved but nowhere near enough yet for us to say we’re on top of it.
I want ask you about a more positive aspect of South Africa and your love of the Karoo. You said at the talkback at the Fountain Theatre that you tend to do your writing when you go back to South Africa.
That is true. More importantly than just doing the writing there, I find my stories there. You know, when I’m among my people, when I’m speaking my mother’s language, because my mother spoke good English but she wasn’t English. She was an Afrikaner, one of the Dutch stock, the regional Dutch stock in the country. Which is also the dominant language of that little village in the Karoo where I’ve got my South African home (New Bethesda), which I will be visiting later this year again. I go back once a year.
I’d like to know more about when you were in Johannesburg and were a clerk at the Native Commissioner’s Court, which is something that Americans are not familiar with. I wonder if you describe a bit what that court did and how the cases that were affected by apartheid influenced you.
I think it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life, in that court, where I was clerk of the court.
Because I really saw at first hand what the policy of apartheid was doing to innocent people. And basically what that court was dealing with. Well, let me start by saying during apartheid, all adult men and women were forced to carry something called the passbook…stamps that the official stamped in that book determined…where you could live, whether you could have your family with you. It controlled your life.
It controlled your life. And the first thing a white policeman always did when he saw a black man that he didn’t like or that was acting in his opinion suspiciously was to say, “Your book, please.” The court cases that came before the court where I was working dealt with offenses in terms of that book, characters who were in Johannesburg who didn’t have permission, as defined by a stamp…It was something only Kafka could have written about, because we disposed of a human being every two or three minutes. It was like…a lunatic, nightmare GM assembly line, where the accused lined up outside the door to the courtroom, in the prison yard and then let in one at a time. And dispatched for times ranging from two weeks, three weeks, two months, and also, you know, thrown out of Johannesburg, sent back after they had served their sentences, into the country where there was no work, no chance of earning a living, where their families were hungry and their children starving. Uh, man, I’m telling you, it was a nightmare. I saw how my country worked.
When you were doing Blood Knot, with Zakes (Mokae, Tony Award winner for Master Harold), was that the first time you had performed in your work? And what was the sensation of saying your own words onstage?
That’s rather different for playwrights.
“It’s so long, man. The monologues.” Fortunately, I went on to make sure that they were edited and properly cut. (Laughs.) I was a young writer. It sounded like from the typical young writer’s drawer or whatever. It was hideously overwritten…I mean, you so enjoy your language. Any little thing that comes up in the course of writing the play and you go up to write a couple of pages about it, you know…And that happened with me.
Did it change the way you wrote?
Doing it with Zakes you see, I never fancied myself as an actor. I’ve never fancied myself as a director. I think I’ve said this. My essential identity is that of a writer. But the plays I was writing, the stories I wanted to tell, nobody else in South Africa would touch with a bloody march pole. It was an incredibly jingoistic society. If it didn’t look like George Bernard Shaw or didn’t make you laugh like Oscar Wilde, it wasn’t set for the South African stage. And other playwrights of that time were writing plays like that, that had nothing, nothing to do with the urgent and terrifying reality of the millions of black people alive in that country at the same time. But they weren’t interested. “Good God, the black man and the white man together on the stage at the same time, living in a shack? What sort of story is that? Disgusting. That’s kitchen-sink drama. Worse than kitchen-sink because there’s no kitchen sink!”
I understand that, regarding Boesman and Lena, an early production, if not the first production in South Africa, had whites playing black characters. Is that true? And what was the reaction?
I played Boesman because there were no actors available for roles of that dimension at the time. A great, not extraordinary, a great South African actress called Yvonne Bryceland, who I worked together with for 21 years, played Lena. At that point, also, apartheid was very much a reality in South Africa—and so the character of the old black man who runs shuffling into their lives out of the darkness, I wouldn’t have been allowed to put a real black man onstage because, by then, laws had been passed outlawing mixed casts on the stage.
Did you actually rewrite The Island while it was in production based on audience reactions?
No…There was a final edited version in the rehearsal room. They would improvise. I would go home after the rehearsal and I would—because improvisation has got to be very severely disciplined or it just runs away with itself—would do that disciplining and come back the next day with a scene I typed out for John (Kani) and Winston (Ntshona) and that’s then how we went to work.
I read that in the beginning, they had some sort of blanket or towel and they kept making it smaller and smaller to give the sense of being in prison on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned).
And it’s my understanding that the government could not shut down the play because there was no existing manuscript.
Of course not. I hid the text away. There was very distantly an existing manuscript. But in much the same way that poetry of the great Russian poets during the Stalin era was on secret bits of paper, or committed to memory so that censorship could not get hold of him and so that Stalin couldn’t get hold of him, we learned that lesson from them. And we just made sure—oh yeah, there were copies of the play all right, but they were in places and with people the Special Branch would never find.
Did the government attend any of the performances?
Oh, every one. (Laughs.) Oh, yeah, the Special Branch was the enforcement. You got to know them. You’d greet them. “You chaps pay for your tickets tonight? Or do you want freebies?” (Laughs.)
(Laughs.) That’s fascinating. And yet, they did not close down that production, despite their fear?
They threatened us…But we made very certain of our circumstances. There were loopholes in the law. And we had lawyers, very good, courageous lawyers—as was the case with the civil rights battles in the South—who knew the law and knew what loopholes were there. We exploited those loopholes, making the performance allegedly private…Invited friends and family, you know what I mean?
This article originally appeared on huffingtonpost.com on July 31, 2009. Reprinted with permission.
Brad Schreiber (brashcyber.com) has written for all media. Among his six books is the compendium of theatrical disasters Stop the Show!: A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater.
A coda for Valley Song
Athol Fugard wrote Coming Home in 2008 as a sequel to Valley Song, his 1995 play that first introduced the 17-year-old Veronica Jonkers and her grandfather, Oupa. (Berkeley Rep produced Valley Song in the 1997/98 season.) Fugard had been writing plays about his country’s political situation for many years, and in Veronica he embodied the spirit of hope palpable in immediately post-apartheid South Africa. In Valley Song, Veronica leaves home to pursue her dream of becoming a singer and fulfill the promise of a new life.
Coming Home sees her return after the shiny horizon loses its luster. Again she serves as a symbol for the national mood as the optimism of the 1990s fades, and the country, still plagued by racial discord, extreme poverty and unreliable politicians, has allowed itself to become engulfed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Some people, including Fugard himself, wondered if the demise of apartheid would lead to the resting of his pen, as he had written the bulk of his plays from a deep-seated need to denounce those policies. But Fugard’s unrelenting moral compass has guided him toward continued examination of human behavior through the lens of his troubled homeland.
A scourge of pandemic proportions: HIV/AIDS in South Africa
By Madeleine Oldham
HIV and AIDS ravaged societies around the globe in the 1990s, but nowhere did it hit harder than South Africa. Today, South Africa is thought to have the highest number of people living with HIV of any country in the world. Some of the staggering infection rates from statistics gathered in 2007 include:
- 12% of the total population
- 600,000 AIDS orphans
- 30% of pregnant women
- 33% of gay men
- 1 in 4 people ages 15–49
Researchers attribute South Africa’s dire situation to a number of factors. The disease feeds on poverty (which is why the numbers are so much higher in Africa in general), and the country’s extreme wealth disparity has created a large segment of the population that must scratch and claw to meet the most basic human needs. In underprivileged communities, a lack of education contributes heavily to the spread of misinformation, or no information at all. Psychologists note that the high rates of sexually transmitted diseases in low-income areas are likely influenced by a worldview that does not include planning for the future because present realities are so cruel. Barriers to treatment options, both perceived and real, mean that testing rates are very low—why find out if nothing can be done about it? And the stigma and social ostracism attached to the disease is so strong that many would rather simply not know.
But South Africa boasts a nefarious distinction in its response to this devastating epidemic. The government repeatedly refused to confront facts, adopted scientifically unsound positions and espoused dangerously erroneous advice. The country was also so distracted by ending apartheid and the resulting period of adjustment and uncertainty that they failed to pay the necessary attention to HIV’s steeply increasing infection rates. The policies of apartheid added some racial overtones to the AIDS debate: one member of Parliament, for example, welcomed the virus as a tool to eradicate black people.
The first recorded case emerged in South Africa in 1982, but AIDS was dismissed early on as a “gay disease,” so the government felt no need to respond. Infection rates rose steadily and rapidly in subsequent years, quickly traveling beyond the confines of the gay community. The early ‘90s saw a global galvanization to stem the tide of this seemingly unstoppable disease. Public dialogue raised awareness, the research community stepped up its efforts, conferences were held and strategies developed to combat transmission through extensive drug trials and educational campaigns.
While the world banded together, South Africa dragged its feet and became mired in controversy. In a 1996 attempt at an education initiative, the government poured money into creating a musical called Sarafina II (a sequel to the original musical about the Soweto riots) that aimed to educate the public about AIDS prevention. Contention erupted amid questions about where the facts being communicated were obtained, content was hotly debated and scandal ensued about a portion of the funding that disappeared. Ultimately, the government was forced to abandon the project, which went down in history as a dismal failure.
Another attempt at addressing the situation in the late ‘90s crashed and burned when South Africa tried to bolster its own research efforts to develop anti-AIDS drugs. The lead scientist who created Virodene, a homegrown contribution to the antiretroviral movement, was found to have falsified her credentials, as well as conducted unauthorized and unethical drug trials on human beings. Then President Thabo Mbeki’s support of this project and its investors has come under recent scrutiny.
The South African government continued to make missteps. In a series of statements made in 2000, President Mbeki dismissed established scientific evidence that inextricably linked HIV with AIDS. He proffered the thoroughly unsupported viewpoint that AIDS might be contracted by many different means and publicly sought the advice of what have come to be known as “AIDS denialists.” He encouraged people to consider causes other than HIV, arguing that if other causes were found, other solutions could be found. Mbeki’s health minister notoriously urged South Africans to follow a diet of garlic, lemon and beets and take nutritional supplements to combat HIV. A deputy health minister who believed in the established research was dismissed on charges of corruption, but rumors abounded that she was let go due to her unwillingness to play along with the government’s questioning of the link between HIV and AIDS.
International drug companies tried to address the situation by sending low-cost or free antiretroviral medication, but the government expended little effort to distribute it. Governmental figures made arguments against the antiretroviral drugs, calling them “toxic” and pointing to side effects as evidence of this.
Current President Jacob Zuma attracted global attention to South Africa’s mishandling of the AIDS epidemic during his 2006 trial. Accused of raping an HIV-positive woman (he was acquitted), Zuma said in court that after what he described as consensual sex, he took a shower to “minimize the risk of contracting the disease.” After years of hope that the South African government was finally beginning to take the scientific research seriously, this statement was perceived as a major setback.
However, some positive actions have transpired recently. On December 1, 2009 President Zuma announced a new policy that all pregnant women and babies would have access to antiretroviral treatments. He also declared that he himself would get tested. These efforts signify a new willingness to comply with established scientific research, and a new seriousness on the part of the South African government to tackle what have become calamitous conditions for its people.