A Research Renaissance, South African Style

Jon Cohen*

Photos by Malcolm Linton

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA--Sitting in a patio restaurant at the posh Cape Grace hotel in the shadow of the majestic Table Mountain, Malegapuru William Makgoba shakes his head in disbelief at his own words. Speaking of his friend President Thabo Mbeki, who recently embraced the "dissident" faction that questions whether HIV causes AIDS, Makgoba says, "The sad part is, he's trying to politicize scientific facts, and that's what the Nazis did."

Makgoba, the first black president of South Africa's Medical Research Council, has been among the most outspoken critics of Mbeki's waffling on HIV. Shortly after the news broke this winter that Mbeki had doubts about the link between HIV and AIDS, Makgoba launched a high-profile, frontal assault, including sharply worded editorials in leading South African newspapers and in Science. It's not a particularly comfortable position for a man who shares many of Mbeki's political views. Just this morning, for example, Makgoba will appear on a television talk show to discuss a book he edited called African Renaissance, for which Mbeki wrote the prologue.

Indeed, if somebody had told him that he would return in 1994 from a self-imposed exile to help improve the lot of black scientists, rise to prominence in a black-led administration, and then become one of the sharpest critics of that government, "I would have said they were crazy," Makgoba says.

Raised in a part of South Africa's rural Transvaal that's now called the Northern Province, Makgoba grew up as a shepherd. "The first time I wore underpants was when I was 15," he laughs. Before going off to boarding school, he rubbed lion fat on his body to make him strong.

Figure 1
Pointing the way. MRC head Malegapuru Makgoba, policy shaper and politician shaker.

Makgoba earned a medical degree in Durban's University of Natal and in 1981 won a Ph.D. fellowship at Oxford, studying immunology with Andrew McMichael. "Overall he was one of the most broadly able and interesting students I have seen," says McMichael. "He's a good scientist, but with a mission to do something special for his people."

After a stint at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and London's Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Makgoba returned to postapartheid South Africa in 1994 to become deputy vice chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand. Soon, he became embroiled in an ugly power struggle with 13 colleagues who accused him of gilding his resume. He fought back in the press, turning the tables on many of his accusers, and wrote a book (Mokoko, The Makgoba Affair) that won him loyal admirers and staunch critics. One detractor, a South African economist, wrote in Africa Studies Quarterly that Makgoba's recounting of his accomplishments made him sound "intellectually pompous and arrogant and utterly self-centered, if not downright egocentric."

Makgoba laments that South Africa has no prominent black AIDS researchers. But "talking about AIDS is the tip of the iceberg," he says: "There are just not many prominent black researchers. ... It's one of our biggest challenges not just in medical research, but in the whole educational system." Yet Makgoba himself has hung up his lab coat. "The quickest way for me to open possibilities for black people in the long term is not sitting in a lab and training them," he says. "It's being in a position of power and impacting policy that will affect people across the board."

As for Mbeki, Makgoba thinks his president may end up making lemonade from the lemon. "I do believe Mbeki is flexible enough that at the end of the debate he has caused, he'll make a judgment that's reasonable to us," says Makgoba. "It may be that this case is a turning point." It certainly has been for Malegapuru William Makgoba.

* Jon Cohen was accompanied by photographer Malcolm Linton. For a gallery of additional photos and the stories behind them, see

Volume 288, Number 5474, Issue of 23 Jun 2000, p. 2169.
Copyright © 2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.