Ronald Suresh Roberts
Ronald Suresh Roberts

Gevisser on Aids: A complicity of opposites

The Aids debate has entered a fascinating phase with Mark Gevisser’s nervous and hesitant — yet unmistakable — admission that President Thabo Mbeki is not now, nor has he ever been, an Aids denialist. Queried by the Sunday Times on Mbeki’s Aids stance, Gevisser replied: “He [Mbeki] doesn’t call it denialism, and I agree with him.” At his book launch on November 5, Gevisser similarly conceded that Mbeki is not an Aids denialist.

Gevisser has thus unambiguously turned his back on the central thrust of the entire Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) against Mbeki. In TAC demonology, Mbeki is accused of callous and even genocidal “denial” of the existence of any Aids pandemic. In this silly caricature, Zapiro accuses Mbeki of symbolically slaying a new Hector Petersen, with Mbeki’s Aids policies standing in for the old apartheid guns. In this TAC propaganda, Mbeki is further accused of a supposedly suicidal insistence that HIV does not cause Aids. All of this is what Gevisser rejects when he agrees that Mbeki is not a “denialist”, after all.

But Gevisser still insists that Mbeki is what Gevisser now defines as an “Aids dissident”. Gevisser says that “denialists”, which he admits Mbeki isn’t, claim that HIV does not cause Aids, and/or that no pandemic exists. By contrast, a “dissident”, which Gevisser says Mbeki indeed is, asks questions within or about Aids policy.

However, this hastily cobbled together distinction between “denialism” and “dissidence” is demonstrably wrong: Anthony Brink, who indeed denies that HIV causes Aids and who further denies that Aids exists, insists that the correct term for him is “dissident”. Brink vociferously rejects the term “denialist” as applied to himself. By contrast, Mbeki doesn’t describe his own approach as “Aids dissidence”. He calls it policymaking, which always involves asking questions about the best integrated approach, a practice that he follows on policies across the board, not only on Aids policy. Thus Gevisser’s new definitions simply do not work. They just sow chaos.

Rather negligently, Gevisser does not state (let alone emphasise) this supposed distinction between “Aids denialism” and “Aids dissidence” in his book, yet he has placed great emphasis upon it since the book appeared. He is trying to ride two horses at once: to convey the truth of Mbeki’s position while trying to manage the anger of his friends in the Aids-drug lobby — some of whom have made whole discourses and careers out of consistently misrepresenting Mbeki’s views.

“In my attempt to understand [Mbeki’s] position on Aids, I even lost friends,” writes Gevisser. These “friends” plainly lacked the intellectual tolerance that Mbeki displayed towards both Gevisser and myself as we wrote our different books. Meanwhile, Gevisser himself was not wholly immune to these pressures, hence his fudging. With his compromised and compromising take on Mbeki’s Aids policy, Gevisser has added to confusion rather than clarity in the Aids debate.

“Dissidence” is Gevisser’s word for Mbeki, not Mbeki’s word for himself. And it is a misleading word, because “Aids denialism” and “Aids dissidence” have tended to be taken as the same thing until now in the Aids debate. Mbeki indeed challenged various aspects of the old Aids policy consensus as it stood in 2000. But, as Gevisser himself concedes, these themes have since become part of the evolving Aids policy consensus and orthodoxy.

One of the reasons that South Africa has the most solid Aids statistics in the world, while countries such as India bear the brunt of the recent 40% United Nations write-down of Aids prevalence numbers, is that Mbeki raised the problem of dodgy statistics so sharply so long ago. It is through such questions that countries smarten up their policies. If this was “dissidence”, it was so in the healthiest sense rather than in the pejorative sense that carries stubborn connotations of “denialism”. So Gevisser ought to have used a term other than “Aids dissidence”, which travels around as a synonym for “denialism”. He should have used a word free of the connotations of “denialism” that he himself rejects.

Where does Gevisser concede that Mbeki’s “dissidence” was healthy, not pejorative, and certainly not genocidal? In an extremely unobtrusive single paragraph of his book, downplaying a range of inconvenient truths as a favour to his intolerant friends in the Aids-drug lobby, Gevisser summarises the whole large areas of Mbeki’s Aids thinking that are, in fact, central to the debates that Mbeki initiated — debates that I lay out more systematically in Fit to Govern. In this paragraph, which appears on pages 759 and 760 of his book, Gevisser rather quietly writes that Mbeki had “mellowed on the subject of Aids over the years”:

This was largely because he believed that his interventions had had a significant effect: the scientific world and international agencies did now admit poverty as a critical co-factor to the spread of the epidemic; it was now common cause that it was important to treat preventable diseases such as TB and malaria as it was to fight Aids; the role of nutritional therapy, too, had become more accepted as an essential part of the treatment of immune deficiency than it was in 2000. He also thought that many of his concerns about ARVs have been proven correct, in particular the problems of resistance that had arisen with respect to Nevirapine in pregnant HIV-positive mothers.

Since Mbeki has never denied that the pandemic exists or that HIV causes Aids, Gevisser ought not, in fairness, to have summarised the complexities of Mbeki’s positions with the vague, simplistic and loaded term “dissidence”, a term that when placed, for example, in Anthony Brink’s mouth, means precisely the denial that HIV causes Aids and the denial that any pandemic exists. Gevisser’s muddled and fudged terminology has sadly fuelled renewed confusion in the Aids debate.

Confusion? Just see how vehemently Mbeki’s critics cite Gevisser as conclusive proof that Mbeki is a “denialist” — precisely what Gevisser says Mbeki is not! Business Day‘s Tim Cohen credited Gevisser with telling “the truth” about “Mbeki’s Aids denialism” (November 10) and Business Day reported that “Spotlight on denialism may dent Mbeki’s ANC hopes” (November 13). According to Business Day‘s Hajra Omarjee, “Gevisser says Mbeki spoke of his denialism as recently as June this year when he again questioned the link between HIV and Aids.” But Mbeki “spoke” of no such thing, nor does Gevisser claim that he did. Gevisser himself, speaking at the launch of the book, conceded that Mbeki was indeed not an “Aids denialist”.

Mbeki himself had made this eminently clear in an interview on April 3 2007 with Lionel Barber and Alec Russell of the Financial Times:

The current [HIV/Aids] policy is actually quite old. Already in the Nineties, 1998 or something, whatever, you can trace formal comprehensive South African government policy from that. And as today we decided then that the deputy president would lead that campaign, which I did as deputy president. And it has continued like that ever since. Later we decided that we should put out a formal document … therefore we did, a 2000 to 2005 comprehensive policy on Aids and sexually transmitted disease …

So your medical documents will say acquired immune deficiency syndrome, that is Aids. What that means: you have got this challenge of immune deficiency. Alright, what causes immune deficiency? HIV. Alright. Is that all that causes immune deficiency? The medical textbooks will say there are other things that cause immune deficiency. There is also genetic immune deficiency; that is a different phenomenon.

So I say, alright, let’s respond comprehensively to everything that causes immune deficiency. That’s where you get the story that I have denied a connection. Nobody has ever shown me where I did. They say it. But you say where, when, they can’t. It was never said I never did … You have got to attend to HIV absolutely, but you have got to attend to these other matters. So that is all. I was listening to the radio yesterday. And somebody phones this telephone programme, and says, ‘Oh, the president, we know him for he is a denialist. Like he denied there is a connection between HIV and Aids.’ What can I do?

The “veritable army of researchers and assistants” whom Gevisser credits in the acknowledgements to his book somehow overlooked this prominent interview, which was reproduced in Business Day the day after it had appeared in London last April.

The confusion caused as a result of Gevisser’s inadequate research and synthesis is now being exploited from two starkly opposite directions. On the one hand, those such as Anthony Brink, who have long denied that HIV causes Aids, trade on Gevisser’s confused terminology in order to claim Mbeki for their “dissident” cause, defined precisely as the denial that HIV causes Aids, a definition of “dissident” that Gevisser himself ironically rejects. On the other hand, Mbeki’s illiberal detractors at Business Day and elsewhere trade on the same Gevisser-sponsored confusion so that they can continue to blame Mbeki for denying that HIV causes Aids. This is the complicity of opposites.

This complicity of opposites brings together an unholy alliance of Aids-denialist self-promoters such as Anthony Brink and the anti-Mbeki propagandists of the Treatment Action Campaign. Both sides have a perverse common interest in distorting Mbeki’s views. While Brink wants a god of “denialism”, Zackie Achmat wants a devil of that same “denialism”. Meanwhile, Gevisser, either carelessly or opportunistically, has tried to have it both ways.

As I point out in Fit to Govern, Brink habitually attributes the full and varied range of his own views to the president, among others. This has got him into trouble before. After he claimed in a letter to a prospective supporter that Mbeki had instigated the formation of his Treatment Information Group (TIG) as a counterweight to the TAC, the Presidency publicly crapped on him, as was reported in the Mail & Guardian on March 25 2005: “A statement from the president’s office said Mbeki has ‘declare[d] his views on Aids and antiretroviral treatment, and the claims in advocate Brink’s document of secretive counter-mobilisation, intimate friendships and his special influence on the thinking of government leaders do not, we believe, deserve a response’.” Apart from his attendance at the 2000 Aids Panel meeting in Pretoria, Brink has never even so much as met Mbeki. He has not had a single personal meeting with Mbeki, ever in his life. He pretends.

Brink has also self-servingly claimed the friendship or admiration of, and been sharply repudiated by, the documentary journalist John Pilger and the novelist John le Carre. This week it was the turn of my friend and attorney, Christine Qunta, who has now decided that she has no alternative but to withdraw as Brink’s attorney following his recent conduct. Business Day editor Peter Bruce rather gullibly wrote that Brink “first introduced Qunta and Roberts”, an assertion that surprised both Qunta and myself. (Bruce, titan of journalistic accuracy, checked with neither of us, apparently trusting Brink himself. In fact, Qunta and I met through a mutual friend in Johannesburg 12 years ago.)

The complicity of opposites in our Aids debate is a strange, but not unique, phenomenon. Tony Leon showed a similar co-dependency with his ostensible rival, Zwelinzima Vavi, in giving an exit interview as DA leader to the Mail & Guardian this year: “Wasn’t your open hostility to the trade unions a miscalculation?” the M&G asked. Leon replied: “My attitude has shifted. They have a role in advancing certain values, and Cosatu’s Vavi has been a more strident opposition leader than I have been. I’m not scared of being on the right side of an argument with the wrong people. On labour legislation, I feel they have too much power; on other issues — because they’re completely sidelined in the ANC — too little.” Mbeki later quoted this example of the complicity of opposites in his online letter dated May 25 2007.

This complicity of opposites is also a familiar feature of politics beyond our own shores. On page 128 of The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries, Blair’s former spin doctor quotes the prime minister himself as Blair points to “the left-right alliance trap”, which, Blair says, was “the history of Labour down the years: inhale the right’s propaganda and spew it out in more noxious form. The right say we have ditched our principles, then the left say it with more venom because they talk of hurt and betrayal.” In the same perverse way, Edwin Cameron and Anthony Brink are on the same side of the “Mbeki and Aids” debate, for their starkly different reasons. Gevisser, meanwhile, tap-dances hilariously between them.

As already indicated, Gevisser gives only a single downplayed paragraph on pages 759 and 760 of his book to the whole large areas of Mbeki’s Aids thinking that I lay out in Fit to Govern. Instead of engaging those relevant issues, Gevisser merely writes, rather fatuously, that Mbeki had “mellowed on the subject of Aids over the years”. He then gives an equally cramped summary, placed rather dismissively in parentheses, of the supposedly “orthodox” counter-arguments that supposedly tell against this list of Mbeki’s achievements. A large debate is obviously necessary to sort out these claims and counter-claims. But Gevisser wholly ducks that debate, not even citing Fit to Govern. He simply chicken-hawks the entire analytical debate. Why does this happen to Gevisser? Why does he work so hard to suppress the substance of the Aids debate?

The problem goes to the heart of his methodology as a biographer. When Gevisser turns to deal with the Aids debate, the simplistic “narrative” approach of his book becomes its central problem. A good biography is a hybrid of storytelling and analysis. But, as several early critics have observed, Gevisser’s book firmly elevates “storytelling” over “analysis”. In general Gevisser’s self-described method is to bring facts and “empathy” to Mbeki’s story, rather than judgement. The big exception, however, is the Aids debate, where Gevisser’s ill-informed and ill-researched judgements tumble in.

Gevisser said very sweepingly near the end of an SAFM interview the day after his recent book launch that it was far too early to judge Mbeki. Gevisser even said, in the same interview, that his role as biographer was not to judge Mbeki. This is obviously wrong, as biographers always inevitably judge their subjects, even when they least seem to be doing so. Indeed, earlier in the very same interview Gevisser himself said proudly that, in his Aids chapter, he indeed delivers judgement upon Mbeki. The problem for Gevisser is that judgement is an analytical process while storytelling is a narrative one. And because Gevisser’s book is overly narrative and insufficiently analytical, he does not do enough in his Aids chapter to strengthen his narrative with the tools of analysis, of evidence and of defensible judgement. He makes forensic assessments without demonstrating forensic skills. His storytelling is brilliant; his analysis naive.

Just look at the remarkable (and remarkably misplaced) “narrative” way in which Gevisser reaches the “analytical” conclusion that Mbeki is an “Aids dissident”. Quite apart from Gevisser’s chaos over the definitions of “denialist” and “dissident”, as already mentioned, he simply does not analyse Mbeki’s positions and policies, as stated for example in the Financial Times interview I have already cited. Instead, from page 735 to 737, Gevisser merely tells us another nice-enough story. It is dramatic — and thus a narrative success, as is much of the book — but it does less that zero to clarify the analytical reality of Mbeki’s policy and intellectual position on HIV/Aids policy.

In June 2007, as I was preparing this book for print, I received a phone call late one Saturday night from Thabo Mbeki … [H]e was calling me to find out whether I had seen the document entitled ‘Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot & Mouth and Statistics’.

Instead of reading this document, analysing it and placing it properly place within the lineage and synthesis of Mbeki’s known views, Gevisser simply cited the document’s epigraphs and then turned entirely away from analysis, in order to tell yet another hopelessly speculative story, in which the text becomes a totem or symbol of an ill-defined “dissidence”, rather than an intellectual object to be read and understood within a thorough and authoritative synthesis. Shying away from all the necessary analysis, Gevisser offers only this: “There is no question as to the message Thabo Mbeki was delivering to me along with this document: he was now, as he has been since 1999, an Aids dissident.” Huh?

Unfortunately for Gevisser, convincing analysis can never fall from the sky in this way, like manna from heaven. It cannot be hand-delivered like a lukewarm pizza by a man on a motorcycle, or even in a presidential car. In this Gevisser resembles those who jumped to the wholesale conclusion that, in his nuanced response to a controversial speech by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mbeki was endorsing wholesale the Frenchman’s anti-black racism. In fact, there was much more in the speech and it was to those themes that Mbeki was very properly directing attention.

But in their Gevisser-like eagerness to treat documents like totems of some singular and symbolic meaning (in one case “Aids dissidence”; in the other “racism”), commentators on the Sarkozy speech converted it into a singular totem of “racism” instead of what Mbeki expected, which was that Sarkozy would be critically read and analysed, as with the speech that Gordon Brown had made at the same time, to which Mbeki also directed the attention of readers. Mbeki likewise expected that Gevisser would read and analyse the delivered document, not merely treat it as a totem of an ill-defined “dissidence.”

Where Gevisser ignored the Financial Times interview on Aids that ought to have made him pause for thought and for synthesis, the critics in the Sarkozy case ignored Mbeki’s recent online letter, which ought to have made them pause for thought and for synthesis. There Mbeki wrote: “Because of the global and timely significance of these addresses, I believe that as many of us as possible should study them, of course with no obligation to agree with them. Nevertheless, they present urgent and important tasks to which we must respond.” In both cases unthinking condemnation rushed in where what was called for was nuanced thought.

What to do? Mbeki and his Financial Times interviewers thought aloud, together, about the confusion that had systematically afflicted South African HIV and Aids debates:

FT: You set the record straight today.
Mbeki: I have done it many times.
FT: Were you wilfully misunderstood?
Mbeki: I don’t know. I really don’t know. It might have been bad communication. We were raising questions in a situation when there is a particular understanding that had developed in society so that once you say something else it looks like you are challenging this established truth. It may be, but as I say it is actually a very simple matter.

Now Gevisser has contributed his fresh share to the old and tiresome confusion. If the Financial Times felt sure that Mbeki had authoritatively set the record straight, Gevisser has proven it wrong. Unlike the optimists of the Financial Times, Mbeki rather wearily half-suspected that the misrepresentations would probably continue. And so they have. The reason for this is the complicity of opposites: the energies of those, including Gevisser, who refuse to let go of ideological fictions. On June 15 Mail & Guardian journalist Vicki Robinson recognised in Fit to Govern what she called “a convincing argument for how Mbeki’s stance on HIV/Aids has been misunderstood and in turn capitalised on by powerful individuals such as Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Edwin Cameron”. She was implicitly recognising the complicity of opposites of which I speak in the book.

I can state authoritatively, and without fear of contradiction, that Mbeki fully expected Gevisser to track and know his relevant record and to incorporate the June materials into an analytically sound and synthesised whole. That is the basic task not only of biography, but of all analysis. Instead, Gevisser has proceeded rather like Bob Woodward, who courted ridicule in his George Bush books by systematically claiming to read the attitudes and opinions of his interviewees in their “body language”. Gevisser, like Woodward, wilfully departed from available evidence and reality. Instead of thorough analysis, Gevisser purported to read a mysterious and intuitive “message” in a mere gesture of document delivery: “There is no question as to the message Thabo Mbeki was delivering to me along with this document: he was now, as he has been since 1999, an Aids dissident.”

Why precisely was there “no question” about the “message”? Was it perhaps the firm and resolute body language of the driver(did he swagger?) in delivering the document? Gevisser’s treatment of the content of the document is cursory at best. He simply quotes the epigraphs and moves on. That is no way to handle the obvious clash between the Financial Times interview of April and the nice Gevisser story of June, to say nothing of Mbeki’s extensive record prior to the Financial Times interview. Gevisser needed — and still needs — to do more analytical work.

Gevisser’s methodology reminds me of the first SABC television interview I ever did. I had just co-written the Moseneke Report on Privatisation (1995), which was a critique of the global failures of the ideologically driven “big-bang” privatisations of the early 1990s. The SABC interviewer, Max du Preez, clearly had not read the report. During the commercial break he desperately shuffled through its pages, blinking in panic as we got back on air.

As the interview opened, Du Preez plainly expected me to support privatisation while Sam Shilowa, Cosatu general secretary, opposed it. Du Preez was accordingly startled when I instead launched into a litany of the pitfalls that had to be avoided if public-private partnerships were to work. I gave detailed examples. “But, but, you support privatisation,” he spluttered (or words to that effect). Why, I asked? Well you wrote this, he said, pointing triumphantly to the occurrence of the word “privatisation” in the title of my text. By this spurious logic the author of a “report on Hitler” could be expected to support Hitler.

The underlying methodological point, missed by Du Preez in that 1995 interview as by Gevisser in his 2007 book, is that documents are not sacred totems, self-sufficient in themselves to convey, before analysis and synthesis, any such single-minded ideological messages as “dissidence” or “denialism” or “orthodoxy”. Gevisser needed to undertake the hard work of analysis and questioning that the arrival of the document might and ought to have commenced. Instead, he merely produced the document delivery itself, with a great swish of narrative flourish, as a piece of Woodward-style “body language”.

Gevisser ought to know better. He himself said in the Sunday Times this week: “It takes many years to write a serious biography because you are constructing a narrative out of fact, and if you don’t have a piece of fact with which to tell the narrative, you have to go out into the world and get it.” But this go-and-get principle applies as well to analysis, even more so than to narrative. Competent analysis of the opinions of Mbeki on Aids requires attention to the opinions that Mbeki, in fact, expressed. Gevisser and his self-styled army of researchers failed to “go out into the word” to get these answers, which might have helped him to contextualise the Castro Hlongwane document, alongside other relevant evidence, such as the Financial Times interview.

Instead he converted Mbeki’s delivery of a document, which was, in fact, Mbeki’s invitation to analysis, into a “fact”, self-sufficient in itself to demonstrate Mbeki’s hopelessly ill-defined “Aids dissidence”. This was an enormous failure of intellectual energies by Gevisser: an intellectual flabbiness. It was also a lost opportunity to bring authority and clarity to one of the most vexed chapters of South Africa’s post-1994 history. As it is, the president was left scrambling to repair the renewed damage occasioned by Gevisser’s distortion of his Aids policy initiatives. Presidential spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga pointed out in a letter published by Business Day on November 18 2007: “Hajra Omarjee fails adequately to separate the opinions of the author, Mark Gevisser, from the opinions of President Thabo Mbeki, when she writes that ‘Gevisser says Mbeki spoke of his denialism as recently as June this year when he again questioned the link between HIV and Aids’.”

The truth is, as I demonstrate in the detailed analysis of Fit to Govern, that Mbeki is not now, nor has he ever been, a denier of the pandemic, nor of the link between HIV and Aids.