Ronald Suresh Roberts again tries to argue that President Thabo Mbeki is neither an Aids denialist nor an Aids dissident, but merely a poor, misunderstood and maligned man with a deep passion for the lives of the vulnerable and the poor living with HIV. This comes in the wake of Mark Gevisser’s comments that Mbeki was the latter (a dissident) but not the former (denialist).

This whole debate seems rather absurd and deeply offensive to me. It is like discussing whether George Bush is intelligent or not, while every day hundreds of Iraqis die after the illegal invasion by the United States. Who cares whether he is intelligent or not? All we know is that he is a dangerous man who has caused untold death and destruction and that he should be stopped. I feel the same way about Mbeki and Roberts — and Mark Gevisser, for that matter. Don’t these people know anyone who has died of Aids or is living with HIV? Have they no compassion?

For me this whole sorry saga once again shows that Mbeki and Roberts will rather be right and win an argument than admit to having been wrong — even if that would have saved the lives of poor and vulnerable South Africans. This is a harsh statement, but I am deeply angered by this whole pathetic intellectual masturbation by the likes of Suresh Roberts on the corpses of mostly poor people.

Surely, whether Mbeki is a “denialist” or a “dissident” or merely a man who questioned the medical and scientific orthodoxy around HIV/Aids must be of little interest or comfort to the families of the hundreds of thousands of people who died needlessly because they could not afford antiretroviral drugs, which was not made accessible in the public health sector, or because they decided not to take such medication because the president had created the impression that the medication was dangerous and that “a virus cannot cause a syndrome”?

Fact is that Mbeki is not the victim of some conspiracy of people twisting his words. He is merely the victim of his own, arrogant, know-it-all questioning of the medical orthodoxy, which, if it was followed, would have saved countless lives. No, he is not the victim; we are.

This arrogance at the very least created confusion and emboldened quacks and charlatans who could then exploit the fears of ignorant people by selling them snake-oil cures for HIV when the only way they could be helped would have been by taking antiretroviral drugs. This is why the debate is irrelevant: the confusion was created long ago and has led to the deaths of thousands of South Africans. Suresh Roberts can write for a million years and can write two million pages, but like Lady Macbeth, that spot of blood will never be rubbed out.

Let me mention just a few examples of how our beloved president created confusion and how he created the impression that HIV is not the (sole) cause of Aids and that antiretroviral drugs are poison.

Mbeki said more than once that HIV on its own cannot cause Aids. In an interview with Tim Sebastian on the BBC’s Hardtalk on August 6 2001, Mbeki responded as follows to questioning about the seven million people living with HIV in South Africa:

Mbeki: “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.”

If one virus — the HI virus — cannot cause a syndrome, as Mbeki said here, he must mean other things must contribute to that syndrome called Aids. That means HIV does not on its own cause Aids. Mbeki has argued that those things are lack of nutrition, clean water, sanitation and so forth. He has not suggested that once one is HIV-positive the virus more vigorously attacks the immune systems of those who do not have proper food to eat or clean water to drink (which would have been correct). No, he said that the virus is just one thing that we must look for when we look at the causes of Aids (which is deluded rubbish that gave sustenance to denialists and dissidents).

This view was underlined on October 4 2001 in Business Day, when the head of the ANC presidency, Smuts Ngonyama, took issue with an article in which the newspaper’s parliamentary correspondent, Wyndham Hartley, had called for the pressure to be kept on Cabinet ministers to acknowledge the causal link between HIV and Aids.

Ngonyama (or Mbeki) stated that: “Hartley should read President Mbeki’s speech at the Durban international Aids conference and his comments in the recent issue of Time magazine. He will see that, among other things, what the president is challenging is the assertion that AID, Aids without S, is the exclusive fault of a single virus. To substantiate his opinion, Hartley must produce evidence that HIV is the sole cause of Aids.”

For an ordinary person, for the average journalist and for almost every concerned observer except Ronald Suresh Roberts, this can only mean that the president does not believe that HIV=Aids. Merely being HIV-positive would not lead to one having Aids (and dying). Something more was required: It must mean that Aids also comes from other things and therefore the scare stories about having to use condoms and the stories about this one virus killing millions is wrong and can be ignored. Why use a condom, then, if we are going to die of hunger or lack of clean water, which will also give us Aids, or if we have good food and clean water and the one virus alone won’t kill us?

Even if that is not what Mbeki meant, that is how it was understood by the vast majority of South Africans, and as any president with even a smidgen of humanity and compassion would have known, such a belief would cause people to act in ways that would be detrimental to them and eventually kill many of them. It is criminal that Mbeki would rather win an intellectual argument than see this basic human truth, and it is criminal that Roberts still wants to defend him for doing this.

President Mbeki has also questioned the use of antiretroviral drugs. As Andrew Feinstein has reported in his book After the Party, the president addressed the parliamentary caucus of the ANC and said the following (the correctness of this report has never been denied by the president or anyone else):

Mbeki: “If we say HIV=Aids, then we must say =drugs. Pharmaceutical companies want to sell drugs which they can’t do unless HIV causes Aids, so they don’t want this thesis to be attacked. That is one problem. The other one is the international political environment where the CIA has got involved. So, the US says we will give loans to Africa to pay for US drugs.”

It is therefore all a CIA plot to make us buy drugs that will not save lives but kill us. Maybe this is not denialism. Maybe it is not dissidence. But it is paranoid and criminally irresponsible for a head of state to question the efficacy of the only treatment shown to combat HIV successfully and to question the motives of those who manufacture or call for the use of these drugs.

If Mbeki were a scientist or some professor at an obscure university, this all would have mattered very little — he would have just been another maverick questioning orthodox doctrine and he would have scored good debating points against the pharmaceutical industry, an industry in need of severe criticism. But he is the head of state with enormous influence on the way people think and behave, and therefore has a responsibility to lead and to act in a way that would fight the spread of HIV and help those living with HIV. This he failed to do.

Instead he rather chose to questioning the orthodoxy on HIV/Aids, which might have been intellectually clever but heartless and disastrous from a human perspective because it confused ordinary people — people who would have made a difference to the spread of the disease and its effective treatment had they not been so confused. We all know what the consequences of this confusion led to.

No matter what Ronald Suresh Roberts or anyone else say now, the end result was that one man’s intellectual arrogance had set back the anti-HIV campaign and the campaign for treatment with several years. It did so in a way that future generations would find perplexing, heartbreaking and criminal.

It is absurd and sickening to even argue, then, about whether Mbeki is a dissident on an HIV or a denialist or whatever. Who the hell cares, except people with bigger egos than hearts? All that the families of those who died needlessly of Aids in South Africa know is that Mbeki was wrong. Pity he or his praise singer Roberts would never have to look those people in the eye and admit it.


  • Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics, including gay rights, the right to equality, social and economic rights, and affirmative action. Since October 2006 he also publishes a blog, Constitutionally Speaking.


Pierre de Vos

Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics,...

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