Ronald Suresh Roberts
Ronald Suresh Roberts

Aids, poverty and racism: A further complicity of opposites

As I pointed out in my last post, “Gevisser on Aids”, the Aids-drug lobby (which has long overstated the centrality of antiretroviral treatment in an effective Aids policy for Africa) join in a complicity of opposites with the Aids denialists (who deny that HIV causes Aids and that Aids exists) when it comes to President Thabo Mbeki.

The Aids-drug lobby maliciously taints Mbeki with “denialism”, while the Aids denialists self-servingly claim him as one who denies the existence of the pandemic or the link between HIV and Aids. That was a central point of my last post. In this post I want to look at a specific example of the complicity of opposites at work: both sides have distorted the proper emphasis that Mbeki has placed on addressing poverty and racism as part of the Aids policy mix.

Seven years ago, when Mbeki first emphasised the importance of poverty and underdevelopment as drivers of the pandemic, the Aids-drug lobby called him denialist! But these days the status of Aids as a disease of poverty and underdevelopment is widely accepted (it is practically a slogan) within Aids policy orthodoxy as this orthodoxy has evolved since Mbeki challenged it six years ago.

In response to this Mbeki-induced shift within Aids-policy orthodoxy itself, the Aids-drug lobby has dropped this particular definition of “denialism” and has instead taken up other and sometimes hilariously ill-defined definitions of denialism, a point that University of Cape Town Professor Anthony Butler has well made.

“I wrote a paper in my honours year explaining the government’s HIV/Aids policy,” a former student of Butler’s at the University of Cape Town wrote in a letter to Business Day on November 22. “My accusation that the ANC was ‘denialist’ was met with a sharp red pen: ‘This is the use of an unexplained word to explain a phenomenon that remains unexplained.'”

Meanwhile, those who deny that a pandemic exists (the “denialists” in a strict and defined sense) are enraged to find that Mbeki’s emphasis on poverty does not mean he buys into their denial that HIV causes Aids and that the pandemic exists. Such types as Anthony Brink have rather implausibly begun to squeal that Mbeki’s logic, as outlined by me with Mbeki’s approval, is racist. Ho hum.

Consider first the Aids-drug lobby’s shift. In a Harvard Law School lecture on April 8 2001, Edwin Cameron faulted Mbeki for describing Aids as “a disease of poverty and underdevelopment”. In this emphasis on poverty and underdevelopment Mbeki was, Cameron alleged, “echoing one of the key dogmas of denialism”. However, by the time Cameron wrote his memoirs four years later, the orthodoxy having shifted Mbeki’s way, Cameron silently cured himself of this particular absurdity and quietly accepted that developmental and anti-poverty imperatives were, after all, a necessary parts of Aids management.

Contradicting his own Harvard Law School lecture, Cameron now wrote at page 120 of his book Witness to Aids: “A malnourished, untended patient, living in a shack and beset with other infections, cannot benefit from antiretroviral treatment alone. She is entitled to broader social opportunities and interventive [sic] remedies — including food and housing and clean water and medical care.” No longer, then, was the emphasis on poverty and underdevelopment a “key dogma of denialism”. The retreat was obvious but Cameron lacked and still defiantly lacks the intellectual modesty and indeed honesty to concede, in direct terms, that Mbeki was right and Cameron wrong. So much for the Aids-drug lobby.

Now consider how the denialists mangle the same issues in order to deny, a denial that Mbeki has never joined, that there is an Aids pandemic or that HIV causes Aids. The denialists start from the correct suggestion that much of the Aids discourse is freighted with the same racism that always infects white tellings of black sexuality and of black personality in general.

I point out at pages 226 and 227 of Fit to Govern that the sexual antics of Jacob Zuma, as revealed by his own testimony at his rape trial, opened space for gross generalisations about black sexuality within colonial discourse. To point out this racism, as Mbeki does and as I do, is hardly to suggest that the pandemic is mere fiction or a figment of this racism. To point out, for example, that the grossly overstated prevalence statistics were indeed boosted by racist expectations of sexual disease among blacks is likewise not to deny that there is a pandemic, but merely to insist upon the proper sizing of it, in order to deploy resources most effectively against it.

The anti-racist critique of Aids discourse, pioneered by Susan Sontag in a book that she wrote in Nadine Gordimer’s house in France and published in 1989, is not a substitute for facing the reality of Aids but a vital supplement of it. Unlike the Aids-drug lobby and the denialist camp, each of which embraces it as a singular and fundamentalist truth, Mbeki can keep more than one thought in his mind at the same time.

In my exegesis of Mbeki’s thought in Fit to Govern (pages 226-227) I therefore emphasise the sexualised racism of the Aids discourse and acknowledge the reality of the pandemic. As an example of colonial racism I cite Business Day journalists Karima Brown and Vukani Mde, who wrote:

“[T]he bigger tragedy of Zuma’s lapse last November is that it is wholly in keeping with the general behaviour of most South African men. Our anti-Aids messages do not address the politics of sexuality and the dynamics of desire that fuel our pandemic. Most men who find themselves without a condom at the precise moment it is needed go right ahead anyway, placing themselves and their partners in danger. They cannot conceive of the possibility that such actions could have devastating consequences for them … Those opposed to Zuma’s succession should and can state openly what their objections are. If they are about criminality, then they should naturally fall away, as and when he is criminally absolved. If they are about judgement and personal wisdom, it is doubtful many in the ANC’s leadership would make the grade.”

So it was not just that Zuma was unfit, which he obviously was and is. Zuma was supposed to show that the natives were wholly unfit to administer their own urges, let alone a large and fractious country. The piece was co-written by Karima Brown and Vukani Mde, in that order. They don’t say which of them has had the key factual experiences relied upon as the premise of the piece, viz: “Most men who find themselves without a condom at the precise moment it is needed go right ahead anyway, placing themselves and their partners in danger.” Was this Brown’s experience with men? Or Mde’s with women? Or was it their joint experience, together? Or is Aids journalism about “facts” rather than facts?

Mde and Brown demonstrated, I pointed out in Fit to Govern, the limitless nonsense that it is possible to circulate amidst the colonial preconceptions of South African discourse, especially if the circulator is black. Brian Rostron blamed the foreign press for adopting “the model of an old and lingering imperial anthropology: taking the misdemeanours of one man and embroidering them into the sins of an entire nation.” (Cape Times, May 19 2006). But the South African press was equally imperial and anthropological, with Brown and Mde representing only the worst example.

Contesting such racism in Fit to Govern, I then drew attention to the young Harvard economist Emily Oster, who actually researched the matter and found that “Africans didn’t really behave so differently from people in countries with much lower HIV rates. They did not have many more sexual partners than Americans on average. And, like Americans, Africans had cut back on unsafe sex in response to Aids — or at least relatively well-off, healthy Africans had.”

Poorer Africans, the majority of the population, had made fewer changes because few could expect to reach old age, whether or not they contracted HIV. “Any attack on Aids should therefore include an attack on poverty,” Oster concluded, in an analysis that has, according to the New York Times, marked her for the star track. “This is not the kind of thing epidemiologists would do”, she explained in 2007. “It’s not the way they would have framed it. It’s an idea only an economist would have.” (David Leonhardt, “The future of economics isn’t so dismal”, New York Times, January 10 2007). Mbeki had similar ideas seven years earlier. Mbeki is an economist.

I further pointed out in Fit to Govern that there is a clear kinship between the Brown-Mde thesis and the open racism of the DA MP Ryan Coetzee, who put to Mbeki a formal parliamentary question whether “pervasive rape in South Africa” and “prevailing sexual practices and the attitudes of some men towards women” do not “account, in large part, for the spread of HIV in the country”. In his parliamentary response, subsequently published as a weekly internet letter entitled “Dislodging stereotypes”, Mbeki called upon people to join in the efforts that his government continued to make against the abuse of women and children. The president then assured Parliament that:

Whatever the circumstances, and regardless of the regularity of Catholic incantations about “playing the race card”, I, for my part, will not keep quiet while others whose minds have been corrupted by the disease of racism, accuse us, the black people of South Africa, Africa and the world, as being, by virtue of our Africanness and skin colour, lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage — and rapist.

Mbeki cited an article entitled “The continuing miseducation of the Negro” by an African-American associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Dr Edward Rhymes: “We are portrayed as oversexed or lascivious, and yet the porn and adult entertainment industry is dominated by whites. It is African-Americans that get accused of being rampant sexual beasts, unable to control our urges, unable to keep our legs crossed, unable to keep it in our pants.” Flying as always in the face of historical and contemporary facts, colonialism displaces its own violence and lasciviousness, projecting it upon the Other — and then claims the right to rule that Other, in the best interest of that Other.

In Fit to Govern I concluded the forgoing analysis (which I have reproduced here more or less verbatim) by adding that Mbeki’s critique of this ideological fog has direct policy implications, as in India where, as the Weekend Argus reported on October 28 2007, “the official sexualisation of the HIV epidemic has blinded just about everybody to considering (and protecting against) non-sexual routes of transmission” — from a report in the prestigious Royal Society of Medicine’s International Journal of STDs and Aids. It was not just idle “Africanist” or ideological musing, I pointed out.

Imagine my surprise to find that the Aids denialist Anthony Brink trying to play the race card — like Ryan Coetzee but in the opposite direction — against Mbeki’s Aids-policy analysis and logic on the themes of poverty and race, as I authoritatively laid it out in Fit to Govern and as I have now have now summarised above. Having read the foregoing, Brink told the Sunday Times (November 18 2007) that I refuse to sleep with black women! Let me quote directly from the article, where Brink, who is white, makes a comical and unlikely attempt to adopt a “blacker than thou” posture. The Sunday Times reported:

“Worse, Brink suggests that Roberts will sleep only with white women because he sincerely believes black women are infected with the “sex- death” virus. As he [Brink] puts it: ‘Like nearly all whites who read the newspapers and watch TV, Roberts fervently believes that you can die about a decade after making love with a woman without a condom, especially an African woman, because he thinks women, particularly African women, harbour death in the form of miniature invisible demons in the place most guys like being most. Roberts really believes this. Indeed, at lunch with a lady friend of mine earlier this year, he blurted neurotically when she mentioned me: “He doesn’t use condoms!” As if that was the ultimate token of my lunacy. [I would think that systematic non-use of condoms is indeed a token of lunacy, black or white — RSR].’ It seems likely that Roberts’s alarm was heightened by the fact that she’s black, because he doesn’t believe white women spread Aids; it’s all the blacks who do.”

Having read above what I actually wrote in Fit to Govern, you will promptly realise that it bears no resemblance to Brink’s hilarious summary. Rather staggered by Brink’s mendacity, I replied, as reflected in the same Sunday Times article:

“Roberts said it was important to note that Brink was not purporting to quote him and was making his own false assumptions … Because I said Aids is in part due to poverty, he deduced that it means Roberts is saying it’s more risky to sleep with poor women and because most poor women are black, he deduced that I didn’t want to sleep with black women. That’s not what I said. It’s comical and false. What’s the public interest in this?”

What is the public interest indeed? In a further instalment of comedy, having noted my comment that he was not purporting to quote me directly, Brink then purported to do precisely that. But to purport is, alas, not necessarily to perform. In a letter published by the Sunday Times on November 25, Brink asserted: “He believes Western claims that impoverished black South Africans, not whites, are riddled with HIV/Aids; and the reason he gives for this in Fit to Govern is that, in his opinion, ‘poorer Africans have failed to cut back on sex’. They have too much of it.” The problem — rather ironic given that the Sunday Times headlined Brink’s letter “Another lie every time Roberts opens his mouth” — is that I never wrote what Brink says I wrote, not in Fit to Govern or anywhere else! Brink just made it up!

Brink built his farrago not on anything I wrote but upon an elaborate misrepresentation of the following paragraphs, which you have already read but which I will repeat here for convenience:

The young Harvard economist Emily Oster, who actually researched the matter, found that “Africans didn’t really behave so differently from people in countries with much lower HIV rates. They did not have many more sexual partners than Americans on average. And, like Americans, Africans had cut back on unsafe sex in response to Aids — or at least relatively well-off, healthy Africans had.” Poorer Africans, the majority of the population, had made fewer changes because few could expect to reach old age, whether or not they contracted HIV.

“Any attack on Aids should therefore include an attack on poverty,” Oster concluded, in an analysis that has, according to the New York Times, marked her for the star track. “This is not the kind of thing epidemiologists would do,” Ostler explained in 2007. “It’s not the way they would have framed it. It’s an idea only an economist would have.” (David Leonhardt, “The future of economics isn’t so dismal”, New York Times, January 10 2007).

What I wrote very obviously had nothing to do with my personal sexual preferences. Moreover, Brink distorts the meaning of Oster’s analysis, presenting her non-racialism as racist. Moreover, he actually and clumsily misquotes even the words she wrote, presenting them in the Sunday Times as my words, not hers. Oster simply did not write — and I did not quote her writing — that “poorer Africans have failed to cut back on sex”, as Brink dishonestly rendered it in the Sunday Times. I challenge him to produce that quotation, whether by Oster or myself. Oster said — and I quoted her saying — precisely what you can see her saying in the quote above. In particular, she says that people have “cut back on unsafe sex”. They may be having as much or as little of it as before. She didn’t comment on the quantum of sex, but on its safety. And she said that overall practices, when adjusted for income, did not differ with the so-called civilised West.

That is only the most obvious and blatant of the dishonesties in Brink’s treatment of Fit to Govern. The only way for Oster, Mbeki or myself to avoid Brink’s spurious racism claim is to join him in the denial that there is a pandemic, that HIV is a cause of that pandemic and that poverty exacerbates that pandemic. Nobody, I’m afraid, has ever joined or is joining him now in that.

I disagree with David Beresford who sees Brink as a “loony, crackpot, fruitcake”. Beresford might well cite the fact that the Mail & Guardian had a headline referring to ‘Brink’s loony tilt at journos”; that Brink complained to the ombudsman — and lost. Brink’s criticism of women journalists was indeed “loony”, the ombudsman found. But my own point is different: loony or not, Brink is certainly an abject liar.