Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thabo Mbeki did flirt with Aids denialism

In the rewriting of history those who want to defend President Thabo Mbeki says that he never flirted with Aids denialism. However, in an interview with Tim Sebastian on the BBC HARDtalk on 6 August 2001 President Mbeki responded as follows to questioning about the 7 million people living wth HIV in South Africa:
TM: From what I read which is what the scientists are saying, you have here an acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Now a syndrome is a collection of diseases whose causes are known. You can't say one virus causes a syndrome.

TS: No, but you can say what is the common factor, what do they all have?

TM: You can say, which is what I have said is that you have a virus which causes immune deficiency. But immune deficiency is also caused by other things.

TS: These comments have caused dismay Mr President.

TM: But they are correct...

TS: Even among some of your own workers.

TM: But they are correct...

TS: In your own health ministry people have questioned...

TM: I know.

TS: AIDS workers in Soweto have said you have damaged the campaign; you've muddied the waters...

TM: I think that's a load of nonsense.

TS: Even the head of your Trade Union movement says, you know, that this can undermine the message that all South Africans must take precautions to avoid infection.

TM: Nonsense, absolute nonsense...

TS: Why are they saying this then?

TM: You see it's the misunderstanding about the science of this question. You see as I was saying immune deficiency is a reality, which is part of your AIDS. And I'm saying that that immune deficiency will be caused by many things. The reason that that becomes important is that as a government we've got an obligation to respond to this, and we've got to respond in a manner that is comprehensive, got to respond to immune deficiency that is caused by a virus, you've got to respond to immune deficiency that is caused by other things...

TS: You're the only leader of a major country that is questioning in this way. Why do you think that is?

TM: It's in the science and I'm saying you cannot say to me that of the South African population seven million people are going to die whenever they're supposed to die, and then you don't expect that we look at this matter most carefully, in the greatest detail, to make sure that our responses are correct.

TS: There's a lot of misinformation, hesitation, seeming to question the scientific basis of what respected scientists, Nobel prize winners, people of the Durban Declaration, 5 000 AIDS workers, doctors have said... I wonder whether you realise, whether you accept that your position has actually damaged the fight against AIDS in this country.

TM: I don't.

This passage serves as a reminder that Mbeki did question the link between HIV and AIDS "because one virus cannot cause a syndrome". When challenged about this view, he stubbornly asserts that he is correct and refuses to acknowledge that questions like this from a head of state will cause confusion.

The passage reminds me why President Mbeki has never been my favourite ANC politician and why - when we look back one day - he will be seen as a man with a lot on his conscience. Those who now claim Mbeki never flirted with denialism, are in denial themselves.

When Presdent Mbeki invited Aids dissidents onto the panel of experts to look into the issue of HIV/AIDS, he was flirting with denialism because he was saying that the medical consensus might be wrong. Nobody would have even argued about denialism if, say, the President had invited a panel of experts to determine whether the Holocaust ever happened and included in this panel some Holocaust denialists.

We all would have known that the President was questioning the conventional wisdom about the nature or existence of the Holocaust. The same surely is true for the link between HIV and AIDS.

And a President who questions the link between HIV and AIDS displays the most irresponsible kind of intellectual pride and arrogance because he wants to be right at any cost - no matter how many people may be confused by his argument and may die as a consequence. President Mbeki did many good things during his two terms, but on HIV and AIDS he has acted in the most shameful manner. Anybody who denies this, must be asked: Who are you going to believe? Ronald Suresh Roberts or your very own eyes.

See also a long list of links in which Mbeki questions the link between HIV and AIDS.


james said...


This is a very interesting issue….. I had always been under the impression that Mbeki had said that HIV does not cause AIDS (primarily because this is what countless white South Africans have told me – i.e. “our president doesn’t believe HIV causes AIDS, what an idiot he is, see how incompetent these blacks are”, etc, etc).

Based on the above though, it seems to me that he accepts that HIV causes AIDS but he is saying that there are other issues that contribute to immune deficiency. To me, that makes a fair bit of sense – I mean if a person lives in poverty, with unhygienic living conditions, a sub par nutritional intake and access to poor health care facilities then surely their immune system is going to compromised? And, extending the same logic, surely if a person lives in those conditions and is HIV-positive then ARVs by themselves will not make an adequate difference to them? Am I missing something blindingly obvious here?

I think the ANC government have been particularly poor communicators over the AIDS pandemic in South Africa and have made many mistakes. But I also have the impression that they have been misrepresented to an extent as well. In this instance Mbeki certainly comes across as someone who is more concerned with being technically correct than morally right….but by the same token haven’t the media in SA done damage themselves by simplifying/misrepresenting his stance to one of “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” and then spreading that message?

Pierre de Vos said...

Thanks for the comment, James. See my post above...