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Former President Jimmy Carter Reveals the Only Time He Almost Got in a 'Fist Fight' With Another Head of State

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“That’s the closest I’ve come to getting into a fist fight with a head of state."

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter presents his opening remarks during a conference on advancing women's rights at The Carter Center, Friday, June 28, 2013, in Atlanta. (Photo: AP)

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter says he's never come as close to "getting into a fist fight with a head of state" as he did with the former president of South Africa.

“The first time I came here to Cape Town I almost got in a fight with the president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, because he was refusing to let AIDS be treated,” Carter told the Sunday Times.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter presents his opening remarks during a conference on advancing women's rights at The Carter Center, Friday, June 28, 2013, in Atlanta. (Photo: AP)

Carter said he was in South Africa with Bill Gates, Sr. trying to convince Mbeki to provide antiretroviral treatment to pregnant women with AIDS, but apparently “Mbeki was against that”.

“That’s the closest I’ve come to getting into a fist fight with a head of state,” Carter remarked.

Mbeki has a long history of making inflammatory statements about AIDS, News24 notes. In 1999, he denied in the link between HIV and AIDS and "claimed that AZT - the most suitable ARV at the time - was toxic and refused to make treatment available despite offers of UN aid."

Carter did not specify when exactly the incident took place, nor does the Sunday Times, but it's possible that it occurred during Carter's trip to South Africa in 2002.

Carter's trip report at the Carter Center website reveals moderately transparent frustration with Mbeki:

After Bill Gates Jr. (father of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates III) and his wife Mimi arrived with Gates Foundation staff members, we concentrated on the HIV/AIDS issue, as did, it seemed, everyone with whom we met in the U.S. embassy staff and the government. There is a raging battle in South Africa, brought about by President Mbeki's claim that anti-retroviral treatments are unproven and likely to be toxic...

[...]

After first declining to see us, Mbeki changed his mind at the last minute, and Friday morning we flew to Capetown to visit with him and his minister of health. I outlined our concern about the lack of progress on AIDS in South Africa, pointed out that we didn't want to be embroiled in the HIV vs. AIDS controversy or the claim that anti-retroviral medicine was toxic. What we wanted was to offer our services (Gates Foundation and Carter Center) to remove the stigma from the president by emphasizing positive aspects of a comprehensive prevention program, based on South Africa's own efforts and supplemented by best practices from very poor countries that have known success.

We also offered to organize a "pledging" conference so that approved programs could be financed. One example might be a nationwide advertising program contributed by the business community. When I added that I hadn't seen a single billboard that mentioned AIDS or condoms, they responded that a contract had just been signed with an advertising firm to do this.

Their overall response was to defend the system they have, which, so far as we can tell, is minimal. Most of what is being done in the country is by private and local groups, often over the opposition of the central government.

Thabo Mbeki was president of South Africa from 1999 until 2008.

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