THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS ON PRESIDENT'S VISIT WITH PRESIDENT MBEKI OF SOUTH AFRICA The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
4:00 P.M. EDT
MR. CROWLEY: We've had a whole series of meetings today involving the President, President Thabo Mbeki, and then also a lunch hosted by the Vice President. We have two senior administration officials who are experts on Africa here to give you kind of an outline of what has been discussed thus far. The only caution I'll give you is in about 15 minutes they are due to brief the President again for the next -- which is a roundtable on poverty.
So with that, I'll introduce senior administration official number one.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I'll go for door number one. Good afternoon. P.J. was a little bit off the mark because it's going to be closer to 10 minutes than 15. I apologize, but we do have another event this afternoon which is a roundtable on poverty, including members of the South African and U.S. governments and some outside experts.
In fact, throughout the course of the morning, in the meetings between President Clinton and President Mbeki, the theme of poverty was quite pervasive, and not just specifically with respect to South Africa, but I think more importantly and more broadly, South Africa's role as a leader among developing nations has put this high on the priority list from President Mbeki.
And he raised, among other things, his concern that Africa not be seen as monolithic, and that the bad news that may be making the headlines today not obscure the important, positive developments, whether it be in the field of democratization, or the fact, for example, that several of the fastest growing economies on Earth are in Africa.
The two Presidents talked about how they might work together with the U.K. and Nigeria to harness some of the positive trends in Africa and build a stronger international and concerted effort to do more to tackle the more negative trends. And I think we will be doing much more work on this over the coming months.
The two leaders discussed a number of regional conflicts, including the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. They both expressed their great frustration and disappointment that concerted efforts -- including our own for two years, those of the Organization of African Unity, also for two years, President Mbeki's own efforts -- have unfortunately not succeeded in convincing those two governments to resolve this matter by peaceful means.
They discussed, as well, the Congo. We have been working closely with South Africa, they have been very active, themselves, in working towards implementation of the Lusaka cease-fire agreement and recently committed logistical support units to the peace-keeping effort there. We talked about how we can move that process forward more quickly and more comprehensively.
There was a great deal of discussion about Zimbabwe, with President Mbeki sharing with us his views of the situation and views of how this might be resolved. We agreed that there are two key elements. First, resolving the land issue. We agreed that the involvement of UNDP in an ultimate land distribution program is extremely important to depoliticize the land question there. But, also, and equally on the importance of an end to violence, the prominence of rule of law and free and fair elections -- including, specifically, the need to get observers to Zimbabwe as quickly as possible, both into the urban areas and to rural areas.
We discussed briefly our cooperation in counter-crime and aviation, both of which are going extremely well. Secretary Summers congratulated President Mbeki for the South African government's recent decisions and progress on both the macro and fiscal fronts.
The two leaders also discussed HIV/AIDS, which is a high priority for both of them, and which President Mbeki highlighted as much in his inauguration. President Mbeki is fully aware of the scope of the problem, and is facing a huge challenge in South Africa, given the scale of the disease there.
They agreed on the importance of having a common strategy to move forward. They discussed at some length the issue of the affordability of medicines. And while President Mbeki certainly appreciates the recent steps that have been taken -- in terms of the executive order, initiatives by pharmaceutical companies, and other steps to make medicines more affordable to a majority of Africans -- he did point out that for a majority of people in South Africa, even with these measures, prices are very high, and focused to a great extent on the need to also treat the opportunistic diseases associated with AIDS, and to ensure that the medicines needed to fight those diseases are affordable.
It was a very good discussion, focused very much on how we can move forward together to tackle AIDS and poverty at the same time, to mobilize other leaders to take this seriously -- again, to render necessary medicines more affordable, and also tackle some of the underlying issues, such as health care infrastructure, the need for communication systems in some of these countries with which to provide the education, and so on and so forth.
As P.J. said, we will go on to a roundtable on poverty this afternoon, and then on to the state dinner this evening.
Q Did the issue of Mbeki's beliefs on the origin of AIDS come up? And did he clarify any of the suppositions, the doubts of HIV transmission?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This was very much a discussion about how to move forward, and how to fight the good fight against this disease. President Mbeki has not faltered one step in fighting the disease in South Africa, or in pressing other leaders in Africa to take it on. So the focus of the discussion was, again, less of a scientific debate and much more of a concrete discussion of what we and African leaders, including President Mbeki, need to do to make further progress.
Q But in fairness, if there's still a question in his mind that HIV is the cause of AIDS, I don't see how you go forward in the manner that you're talking about. So was it clear, you think, from the discussion that Mbeki does believe that HIV is a cause of AIDS?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it's very clear that President Mbeki, as I say, has not hesitated at all to implement programs in South Africa to prevent and treat the disease.
Q That didn't answer the question.
Q Does the United States view his opinions regarding the origin and transmission of AIDS as an obstacle to working with him in combatting the disease in Africa?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, President Mbeki has asked a series of questions -- some in the realm of science -- about HIV/AIDS. Our concern is that while those questions may be out there, the important thing be that South Africa continue to work to fight the disease. And they are doing that. We believe the science on HIV/AIDS is good; President Mbeki, I think, has spoken himself to the press on this issue; and again, we have every evidence that he is moving forward, and it's not gotten in the way.
Q So what is he doing regarding AZT distribution to pregnant women?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think on the issue of AZT, our understanding it was taken in the context of affordability and the scope of the problem facing South Africa. If you look at a country like Uganda, for example -- for Uganda to treat with AZT every infected person in the country would cost $2.2 billion, which they simply don't have. And South Africa, at this point, is trying to put in place the things they need to ensure that they have the health care infrastructure to deliver these drugs, to treat the opportunistic diseases and to determine how, with the resources they have -- their own and those from the outside world -- they can most effectively fight the epidemic.
Q Did he give any indication of when the government would adopt this law on generics -- generic AIDS drugs? As I understand, that despite the executive order, the South African government still has not put into law its policy on that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This was not a topic of discussion.
Q It seems to me that President Mbeki also in his statements this morning emphasized this question of infrastructure in order to deliver the medicine and, maybe even more broadly, the terms of infrastructure in terms of creating the basis for a medical system in a place of grave under-development; that one of the problems that you have is the disease spreads faster when you have these conditions of poverty. And since it no longer can be limited in this age of globalization, that you're facing a major problem where the issue, development of Africa becomes a matter of grave urgency, and not just something of interest. And I was wondering if any of those issues, broader issues --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. And that was -- a great deal of focus of the discussion was on just that point. And I think in our view, President Mbeki has raised a point that warrants much more attention and which, unfortunately, has been, I think, obscured -- which is just what you describe.
When you don't have communication systems that allow you to do the kind of education, say, we've done in this country; when you don't have the health care infrastructure that allows you to provide consistently and safely the medicines that people need; when you don't have drugs at an affordable cost, tackling this disease is an enormous challenge. And his view, made very clear to the President -- and I think it's one with which we agree -- is that it is therefore necessary to fight AIDS and fight the underlying poverty at the same time.
If we just focus on affordability of medicines, without focusing on health care infrastructure needed to provide them, we're only going to take one step down the road and we need to take many more than that.
Q In regard to AZT, is it clear that the issues of affordability and infrastructure are the only issues in President Mbeki's mind, and that there's no question in his mind as to the efficacy of the drug, itself, if the infrastructure was there and if it is affordable.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In terms of the discussion, the focus was as I described. I believe he has asked some other questions about possible effects of AZT, that he would like to know more about.
Q What did the President have to say about the affordability of drugs?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He talked about a number of initiatives that we have taken, including the executive order last week; talked at length about our hope that the vaccine initiative, while we cannot wait for vaccines to be produced before we act, certainly down the road will offer a great deal of assistance; and also about a recent offer by five major pharmaceutical companies to take measures that would reduce the costs of some of these medicines significantly, and how President Mbeki viewed the initiative, which has recently been endorsed by the United Nations.
Q Did President Clinton apply pressure on President Mbeki to intercede in Zimbabwe, to try to limit or halt the violence? And, if so, how did President Mbeki respond?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: President Mbeki is already, as was apparent by the discussion, extremely active in doing a great deal to try to end the violence and also bring about resolution of the underlying problem. So there was absolutely no need to pressure him to do that.
Q -- taking some of the negative trends and turning them -- some of the positive trends and addressing the negative trends in future steps. Could you talk about what some of those steps might be, some of the next steps might be?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the next steps are to figure out how to get together to do this. I think there are a number of issues that weren't discussed in any specificity but, for example, what to do about problems like the debt, health and education, the digital divide, increasing trade and investment in Africa. Those kinds of issues are the ones that I think President Mbeki, who is not only the leader of South Africa, but a very important and prominent leader of the developing world, wants to really focus on with us and others. And importantly raised Nigeria in that context.
And there was a lot of discussion going back and forth throughout the day -- and I apologize, I'm going to have to finish here -- but about the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria -- which is indeed very close, President Mbeki will be going to Nigeria when he leaves the United States -- but as two very strong anchors of the continent, and our desire to work with both of them as closely as we can.
And now I'm going to run --
Q Can I have one quick one on Congo?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I really have to go --
Q You said that they'd agreed to move things forward on Congo. Anything specific?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They talked at some length about the situation in Kisangani, which has been fragile in recent weeks, and the importance of shoring up the agreement recently concluded between Rwanda and Uganda, to try to demilitarize the city and put in place the necessary United Nations personnel to help stabilize that. And we agreed on the importance of that step, and the need to work together further to bolster the Lusaka peace process, and accelerate the U.N. deployment.
Q Was there any discussion of a visit by President Clinton to South Africa, or to Nigeria?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There was discussion of lots of opportunities for future collaboration, but I know better than to reveal that here.
Q Does the United States agree with the approach Mr. Mbeki is taking to Zimbabwe? That is, a relatively low-key public, non-critical approach?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The short answer is that we are very grateful for and impressed by President Mbeki's very energetic efforts to deal with the situation in Zimbabwe. It is obviously of proximate concern to South Africa, given their economic interdependence, given their political interdependence in the context of SADC.
And President Mbeki, I think, has been a very active player -- often, but not always, behind the scenes -- in trying to not only broker better understanding between Zimbabwe, the other states in the region, and the United States and the United Kingdom, but also in helping to conceive of and craft concrete solutions that can move the process forward.
And I think as my colleague said, we agree that there needs to be a two-track approach to this, dealing with the fundamental issues of land distribution and land inequity; while at the same time ending the violence, restoring the rule of law, and ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that the upcoming elections are conducted in an environment of fairness and freedom.
Q Will the United States pay in any way to help with the land redistribution, land --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The United States has said on a number of occasions that it stands ready to be helpful in providing assistance in the right circumstances for land reform in Zimbabwe. That assistance is most likely to take the form of technical assistance, as we pledged in 1998, at the Land Reform Conference. But we also have provided substantial bilateral assistance to Zimbabwe over the years since the independence; I believe it's about $750 million. We continue to have a bilateral assistance program with Zimbabwe. And the resources that we contribute we hope will not only deal directly and indirectly with the land question, but the many other social issues that are facing Zimbabwe.
Q It sounds like the President and President Mbeki have kind of agreed to disagree on the causes of AIDS and move on toward other issues other than drug dispensation. Is that a fair reading?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They're certainly focused on the future together, and ways that we can collaborate and craft common strategies to deal with what is not only a massive challenge for the African continent, but for the world as a whole. And they are very much focused on what we can do in our own spheres and together to tackle the AIDS crisis globally through a range of efforts from prevention, education, all the way across the spectrum to providing affordable medicines and developing of affordable vaccines.
Q Was there any discussion of, or is there any concern about, spreading land seizures such as have happened recently in Kenya? On -- in other parts of the continent? Did the leaders discuss that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think fortunately, for the most part, there hasn't been any serious replication of the problems we've seen in Zimbabwe in other parts of Africa -- even where there may be environments that are potentially fertile for that kind of copycat action. President Mbeki made very clear in our discussions here, as he did before the South African Parliament, that there will be no opportunity for similar actions to be taken in South Africa. That is just out of the question, as he has stressed on a number of occasions. And he has made it very plain that South African authorities will take all the necessary steps to uphold the rule of law.
Q I'm sorry to beat on this dead horse, but can you give any examples of the discussion of increasing cooperation with the United Kingdom, Nigeria, South Africa, and the United States, to deal with regional issues? Is there some kind of forum being set up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think, first of all, this is early stages of the dialogue on this issue. But I think several things are recognized and understood: first of all, that South Africa and Nigeria have a very important role to play, from our perspective as well as from their own perspective, as anchors of a new, more democratic, progressive -- and hopefully, economically prosperous -- Africa. They are engines that can, if they collaborate and with their best efforts -- and obviously, a bit of good luck -- can help bring along much of the rest of Africa, if they're given the sort of support that is required.
And I think part of what we are conceiving is the necessity of not taking their transitions and those democracies for granted. They need strong support -- from the United States, from the United Kingdom, from all of the G-8 -- to solidify their democratic transitions, to deal with their economic challenges -- including debt burden, including reform of their economies. The situations in Nigeria and South Africa are very, very different. But what they share is being at different stages, but nevertheless in a transition environment. And the United States and the United Kingdom and others recognize that we have a significant stake in whether or not they succeed.
Q Was there any discussion of the fact that the United Kingdom, the United States, Nigeria and South Africa are all anglophone countries, and that there might be competition on the continent among some of the francophone countries for leadership on the continent?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Quite honestly, the anglophone issue never surfaced in the slightest, and I don't think anybody in the room was conceiving of it in those terms. We don't think about Africa anymore in anglophone and francophone terms. We think about what our interests are and how we can best invest our time and effort to try -- and our resources -- to try to accelerate all of Africa's integration into the global economy. And one can't but look at Africa and see South Africa and Nigeria as vital engines of potential stability and growth, and it was in that vein and through that optic that we were having this discussion.
Q Do you have full confidence in Nigeria in that respect?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry?
Q Full confidence in Nigeria, of the strong democracy and a leader in Africa?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. I mean, these are countries that are, as I've said, going through very difficult transitions, different in each circumstance. But we think that in South Africa and Nigeria, there are governments and leaders whose interests are very consonant with our own interests in promoting democracy, helping stabilize the regions in which they live, and putting their economies on a firmer and sounder footing in the interest of their people and ours.
Q Did President Clinton specifically raise concerns that dissident scientists in the AIDS community might be having an undue influence on the Mbeki administration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As my colleague said more than once, the focus of the conversation was on the way forward, on the future. They didn't get into great scientific discussions or debates. The focus was on how can the United States and South Africa -- recognizing the magnitude of the problem, bearing in mind our clear-cut views on the science and the fact that it's good science -- how do we move forward together to deal concretely with these problems, not only in the South African context, but in the global context.
Q Just to follow up on the earlier question with regard to a reliance on the British; it seems to me that the U.S. is having the British play a greater role in terms of Nigeria and Zimbabwe, and you say that there was no problem in the discussion. But it is the attitude, understanding also in Africa -- I mean, if they have a different attitude towards the United States, which was not a colonial power, than they do with either Britain or France. And isn't there a danger, especially when you get to the point of military involvement, that this could be misinterpreted by Africans if a former colonial power was playing a --
Q I think that your premise is mistaken if I might, if I might say. It's not a question of reliance on the British, certainly not from Washington's vantage point. We coordinate with our partners in London, just as we do with partners in Paris and Belgium and Rome, on various different issues.
But, obviously, Britain has a particular history and a particular involvement in the circumstances in Zimbabwe. That's a historical fact. Obviously, we share with Britain and others a great stake in Nigeria's success. But we have moved forward very emphatically to strengthen our bilateral relationship with Nigeria -- we've set up a joint economic partnership committee to that end; we have quadrupled our bilateral assistance to Nigeria over the last two years; we are working very seriously with partners in the G-8 on the question of how to deal with Nigeria's debt burden; we are the largest, and have been the largest, supporter to Nigeria's peacekeeping efforts through ECOMOG and Liberia and Sierra Leone.
So we are building our own relationships and our own interests, and -- where possible, feasible, and advisable -- coordinating as closely as we can with partners in Europe, and partners in Africa.
Q But on the earlier question, how can there be collaboration on fighting AIDS if there's a dispute on what causes AIDS?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, I think President Mbeki has characterized his own views, and he did so again this morning. And I don't -- I don't think that the portrayal of a dispute is as accurate as it's been construed to be. And I think that the real issue is not a debate about science -- we have scientists who do that very well, and we think have been very clear about the origins of HIV/AIDS.
The issue is, how do we maximize our collective efforts to fight the disease? And President Mbeki and the government of South Africa have long recognized that this is a fight they have to be waging. And they are throwing their very best efforts into it. And we have every intention of helping them as they do so.
Q Africa trade bill? Early on, President Mandela was not in support of the Africa trade bill. Is it now seen as a step or an obstacle to U.S. involvement in the continent?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's seen very much as a positive step. The government of South Africa has for quite some time made plain its support for what was the African Growth and Opportunity Act, is now part of the Trade and Development Act of 2000. The South African government has welcomed its passage, and its signature into law. And South Africa, in fact, is one of the countries that has the most to gain by its implementation. So we're looking forward to the -- the implementation of the legislation is a good thing for South Africa, a good thing for the United States, and a good thing for all of Africa.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks.
END 4:25 P.M. EDT