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Defending the legacy of Mbeki on HIV/Aids

I was very pleased to read an article by an HIV-positive radio talk show host, Criselda Kananda, titled, Mbeki was brave to enough to challenge HIV orthodoxy. She says, “I would fail myself and what I stand for if I were to allow the legacy of Mbeki to be reduced to im being called a ‘denialist’ when often those expressing this opinion are the ones who continue to practice unsafe sex.”

The question of former president Mbeki’s HIV/Aids purported denialism has been referred to ad nauseum since 2000, and more so after his “recall” from government. This so-called denialism has been quoted as one of his less flattering achievements since becoming president. Many of those who accuse him of denying the causal link between HIV and Aids do so from a position of ignorance, basing their “expert” judgement on media reports and utterances of commentators such as Professor Sipho Seepe. This serves to prove that a lie repeated many times is perceived as the gospel truth.

Time Magazine in 2000 conducted an interview with the former president, and when the question of HIV/Aids came up, this what he said:

“If the scientists say that the virus is part of the variety of things from which people acquire immune deficiency, I have no problem with that. But to say that this is the sole cause and therefore the only response to it is antiretroviral drugs, [then] we’ll never be able to solve the Aids problem. … If you accept that there can be a variety of reasons, including poverty and the many diseases that afflict Africans, then you can have a more comprehensive treatment response.”

It requires only a person seriously challenged to fully employ his/her mental faculties or a mischievous person with a malicious intent, to take the above statement and conclude that the former president blatantly denied the causal link between HIV and Aids. Knowledge that HIV/Aids is not the biggest killer in our continent — malaria, poverty and violent conflict claim more lives than can be attributed to this single syndrome — is not widely distributed. But ignorance of the truth excuses no one.

HIV/Aids remains a problem that need to be confronted with all our might; but not through a single blunt instrument that only serve interests of pharmaceuticals. It requires of the government an understanding of the broad range of underlying contributing factors to the collapse of the immune system beyond the HIV/Aids orthodoxy

The former minister of health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has been a subject of vitriol and ridicule for pursuing a more comprehensive treatment response to the scourge of HIV/Aids. The large majority of our people live in abject poverty and are more susceptible to the breakdown of the immune system; be it as a result of contracting HIV or not, and it would be criminal on part of government to dispense drugs to these patients in the absence of adequate nutrition. While the media derided the minister for her promotion of beetroot, garlic and African-potato as part of the nutritious diet, those endowed with superior knowledge in matters of nutrition concurred with her.

The former president was correct in challenging the long-held belief that immune deficiency can be attributed to a single virus. None of us can challenge the veracity of the assertion that repeated infections, malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, impact negatively on the immune system.

Those who accused him of dilly-dallying when people were dying, were mostly ignorant of the fact that government’s programme on HIV/Aids was informed by the orthodox view on this matter. While government had the responsibility of ensuring the health of millions of South Africans it remained their sole responsibility for ensuring that the they were not infected and remained uninfected. Government cannot be held accountable for irresponsible sexual behaviour of those who ignore calls to practice safe-sex.

Mbeki said he was surprised to find how many people claiming to be scientists “are determined that scientific discourse and inquiry should cease, because ‘most of the world’ is of one mind.” It is important that we refrain from deliberately stifling open discourse even on contentious matters such as HIV/Aids out of the irrational fear of offending the long-held principles.

It has never been easy for many people to immediately discard deeply entrenched beliefs or views in favour of less the prominent ones.

Openness of mind is critical if we are to progress any further as a nation. It is due to the stubbornness of South Africans to be less rigid in their views that we have problems of homophobia, xenophobia and so on. The majority of people in our country remain rigid and unable to easily absorb views conflicting with their own; they are unable to easily adapt to changing circumstances and board the carriage in the diverging train of thought. It requires a certain level of maturity to be able to accept opposing views without being violently confrontational, without any obligation to concur with them.

The 18th century French philosopher, Voltaire, said, “I may not agree with what you say but I shall defend your right to say it … will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Our Bill of Rights was not intended to exclude the head of state!


  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Sentletse Diakanyo's blogs may contain views on any subject which may upset sensitive readers. Parental guidance is strongly advised.