Mark Gevisser in his book The Dream Deferred contains gross inaccuracies about me.

First on page 738 where he writes: “Charlene Smith would write in the Washington Post that rape was ‘endemic’ in Africa and had become ‘a prime means of transmitting the disease, to young women, as well as children.'” He gives the source of this as “Smith, C, ‘Their Deaths, His Doubts, My Fears’, Washington Post, June 4 2000″. As you will see from the article that follows below, I wrote no such thing.

On page 749, he repeats this defamation where he writes: “… his response a few months later to Charlene Smith’s comment that rape was ‘endemic’ to African culture shows that he had developed an acute understanding of the way Aids was being used, specifically, to stigmatise male sexuality. In her ‘blind … racist rage’ following her rape, Mbeki wrote, Smith represented the ‘considerable number of people in our country who believe and are convinced that most black (African) men carry the HI virus’ — and were using sexual violence to spread it.”

Now here’s the thing, blinded as I was by racist rage, that I wrote immediately after I was raped (in an article published eight days after the rape in the Mail & Guardian and which Gevisser sources, so he must have read it): “I tell you the race of my neighbours because I want you to know that rape is not about race, as some South Africans think. It is not about what men do. It is about what a few sick individuals do; it has nothing to do with race or malehood. Indeed for the most part men treated me better than women that night.”

If Gevisser found racism in that, then I cannot contemplate what he was blinded by.

He repeated the defamation at the Wits University launch of his book where he said: “Careless language by Charlene Smith said rape was endemic in African society.” The carelessness is all Mark’s.

You will see that the claim that rape is “an endemic feature of African society” was written by none other than Thabo Mbeki in a letter to Tony Leon dated July 9 2000. I am not sure where he got the second section he puts in quotes as coming from me, but it certainly does not come from me and I can only assume it is a figment of Mark Gevisser’s imagination.

Inkatha Freedom Party MP Suzanne Vos has also claimed that Gevisser has inaccurately reported events that she has repeatedly corrected around a secret meeting between Inkatha and the African National Congress in 1979. Vos says that Gevisser repeated old, inaccurate news that she had repeatedly corrected in the media and in meetings.

Gevisser claims in his chapter on Mangosuthu Buthelezi that Buthelezi told Vos, who was then a Sunday Times journalist, of a secret meeting with the African National Congress in London in 1979. Vos says: “I have said time and again following the first ANC/IFP meeting at the Royal Hotel in Durban in the early Nineties when the ANC raised the matter again — not realising I was in the room. I got up and revealed my source at that closed meeting for the first time that it was, in fact, an ANC official in London who told me (albeit inadvertently — he thought I knew about the meeting because of my friendship with Buthelezi!). I was the Sunday Times correspondent in London at the time.”

The article that has caused Mbeki years of rage

Their deaths, his doubts, my fears

The Washington Post, June 4 2000
Author: Charlene Smith

On June 2 last year, after voting for Thabo Mbeki to be president, Busisiwe Shope was walking home when three young men stepped from the shadows created by the pink street lights in Alexandra, and pressed a gun to her cheek. They dragged the 29-year-old mother away, firing shots in the air, and then raped her repeatedly.

Six months after the attack, Busisiwe learned she had contracted HIV. Now she is suffering from respiratory ailments and crushing headaches — early signs of Aids. She is unlikely to see her 33rd birthday.

Busisiwe’s story could have been mine. Two months earlier, I was raped at knife point in my home. But because I write about Aids, I knew the power of antiviral drugs (such as AZT) to protect against the onset of HIV infection if used immediately. While I had no idea whether my attacker was HIV-positive, I was taking no chances. So, for almost six hours after I was raped, in three different hospitals, I argued with doctors who refused to give me AZT. Dressed only in a flimsy gown, with blood on my hand, with masking tape still around my head, neck, wrists, knees and ankles, and with a disgusting feeling of wetness between my legs, I remember shouting at one doctor: “I’ve been raped. I’ve been stabbed. I have two children. I don’t want to die. Give me the drugs!”

He did. And more than a year later I am confident that, unlike Busisiwe, I will remain HIV-negative.

Those two incidents resonate in my mind whenever I think about the recent news coverage of Mbeki’s skepticism over whether HIV causes Aids. His attitudes aren’t new: For years Mbeki has argued — erroneously and dangerously — that AZT itself is toxic. Recently, he refused to accept the offer from major pharmaceutical companies of heavily discounted antivirals to curb HIV transmission from mother- to-child and through rape. What’s more, he has spent millions investigating what Western scientists proved a decade and a half ago — that HIV causes Aids. And now comes the release of the letter in which Mbeki casts renewed doubt on that causal link and argues that an African answer should be found to deal with this “uniquely African catastrophe.” I had trouble getting AZT before; I can only imagine it will become harder if Mbeki’s views become the norm in South Africa. I can only imagine that there will be more people who will face Busisiwe’s fate.

Give the man his due. Mbeki is right, of course, in saying that African solutions must be found. In the United States, Aids is primarily a gay men’s and intravenous drug users’ problem. Here, it is spread primarily by heterosexual sex — spurred by men’s attitudes toward women. We won’t end this epidemic until we understand the role of tradition and religion — and of a culture in which rape is endemic and has become a prime means of transmitting the disease, to young women as well as children.

There’s no doubt in my mind: Attitude is the father of rape, and the incubator of Aids. A change in attitude can save lives. The government in Uganda, a country far poorer than South Africa, began encouraging open discussion about Aids a few years ago and giving drugs to stop mother-to-child transmission. Infection rates among pregnant women have since dropped from 30 percent to 16 percent. Why don’t we see the same sort of public health measures in South Africa?

Here, 36 percent of pregnant women are HIV positive; one in three babies born is infected; 75 percent of pediatric deaths at one of Johannesburg’s largest hospitals are Aids-related. And the epidemic has not yet peaked — that won’t happen for four years, when the average life expectancy here is expected to be 35.

Walk into the pediatric ward of a government hospital today, and you’ll see children lying in oxygen tents, or stumbling around, their hands and lips blue from lack of air, as the virus ravages their respiratory systems. In orphanages, wards overflow with screaming, skeletal babies abandoned by their HIV-positive mothers.

The strain on government hospitals is acute. Patients have to bring their own sheets; there are not enough IV poles, so IV lines are draped over light fixtures or anything high; there are not enough beds, so patients sleep on the floor or in chairs. A young woman I met last month believes she contracted the virus when she was sick in the hospital. “They were re-using needles,” she told me. “It was filthy . . . . They had no beds, so I slept in a wheelchair.” Pregnant with twins, she doesn’t have the money for the drugs that would help ensure that her babies won’t be HIV positive. “How do we forgive this government?” she asked.

I didn’t have an answer for her.

Aids in Africa will not end because of the availability of condoms; and we can’t wait for a vaccine. Across the continent a woman who asks her partner to use a condom is asking for a beating. The highest incidence of HIV here is among girls and women ages 15 to 25, according to South Africa’s health authorities, with a fifth of all girls ages 13 to 19 now infected. According to World Bank statistics, six times more girls have HIV than boys. Don’t those numbers say something about culture and sexual attitudes? In Zimbabwe, there are “pot-wives” — single women who have sex with a group of men in return for food and a roof over their heads. Throughout the continent, the incidence of child rape is accelerating, spurred by the myth that a man who rapes a virgin will rid himself of HIV. Not a single government on this continent has acted to dispel that myth. In many parts of southern Africa, a rapist can pay compensation of as little as $3 to the family whose child he has raped, and the matter ends there. In South Africa, one in two women will get raped at least once in her lifetime.

The results of this kind of behavior are deadly. South Africa now has the world’s fastest-accelerating rate of HIV, with 1 800 new infections each day. We have the world’s most lethal strain of HIV — subtype C, which is easier to contract and kills the fastest.

We should be putting all our efforts into halting the virus now. With sound education and medical practice backing our scientific knowledge, we can start to do just that. The evidence is there: In three recent major drug trials in South Africa, antivirals proved startlingly effective in rape victims if given within 72 hours of being raped and for 28 days thereafter. Not one of the hundreds of victims became HIV positive.

Yet while Africans are dying of Aids in unprecedented numbers, our president is setting us back two decades by entertaining the theories of a group of dissident American scientists, who argue that Aids is caused not by HIV but by a lack of hygiene and poor nutrition.

The fallacy of that theory should be clear to anyone seriously worried about Aids. There are members of Mbeki’s privileged inner circle who have HIV. The South African National Defence Force, which has a 70 percent rate of infection, has fine accommodations, good food and exemplary hygiene. The workers in the Carletonville gold mines, whose infection rates are at around 77 percent, live in clean housing and have plentiful food.

But tell that to chief undertaker Mbeki. Aids is our president’s Achilles’ heel. The man who would lead South Africa from the misery of economic poverty, will, if his policies continue, preside over graves.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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