Sixteen years ago, two colleagues and I wrote a letter to Nature expressing our concern about our then-President Thabo Mbeki’s denialist views on HIV and AIDS – views he then tried to push into national policy, and which almost certainly were highly influential in delaying the rollout of ARVs in South Africa. I was also active for several years in the media and in public lectures in trying to negate some of the damage he was causing – and I was very relieved when he took a back seat eventually, and then effectively vanished from the public stage.
However, in an unwelcome development as of this week, it appears that Mr Mbeki has finally, in his ongoing quest to rewrite history, addressed the elephant in the room: his views on HIV/AIDS.
To say this “letter” is self-serving would be to pay it a compliment. Indeed, he himself has this to say concerning the awful “Castro Hlongwane, Cats, Geese, Caravans, Foot and Mouth and Statistics…” that he almost certainly was the main author of, back there in 2002:
“Thirteen (13) years later today I would stand by everything said in this excerpt and still ask that the questions posed should be answered by those who have the scientific capacity to do so!”
So in other words, he still holds with much of the rubbish he wrote then. Right – well, so will I revisit something I helped write, back in 2000, after reading that Mbeki had written to Bill Clinton to dispute conventional ideas on HIV/AIDS.
“Nature 405: 273, 2000
Sir – As South African scientists working in the field of HIV/AIDS vaccine research, we are extremely concerned about the letter president Thabo Mbeki recently sent other heads of state (Nature 404, 911; 2000). As an individual Mr Mbeki is entitled to his point of view, but as our head of state we feel he risks binding our country to an untenable position.
We would like Mr Mbeki and others to consider how the mass of South Africans would react if he were to give a sympathetic ear to unrepentant proponents of apartheid. His willingness to be influenced by people with no credibility causes as much anguish to those of us working to combat HIV/AIDS.
The simple facts, as shown by a huge volume of scientific and medical research, are that HIV causes AIDS; that in Africa (as in other developing regions) the disease is mainly spread heterosexually; and that AIDS kills poor people in disproportionate numbers. We most emphatically do not need to revisit the debate on the causation of AIDS. What we do urgently need is to educate, train and medicate, to save lives.”
This is germane, because Mbeki has the gall to go back to his Castro Hlongwane crap at the end of his latest letter, and say:
“Beneath the heartening facts about decreased mortality and increasing life expectancy, and many other undoubted health advances, lie unacceptable disparities in wealth. The gaps between rich and poor, between one population group and another, between ages and between sexes, are widening. For most people in the world today every step of life, from infancy to old age, is taken under the twin shadows of poverty and inequity, and under the double burden of suffering and disease.”
“Castro Hlongwane…” says: “Given that our minds on this matter (of HIV and AIDS) have become thoroughly clogged by the information communicated by the omnipotent apparatus, a miracle will have to be achieved to get all our people to use their brains, rather than perish on emotional responses based on greatly heightened levels of fear.”
Really, Thabo?? You’re going to harp on about poverty, again? Oh, and the “omnipotent apparatus” that is Western Pharma, and of course US capitalism?
Please do us a favour, Comrade: go back to your pipe, and your old friends Johnny and Jack, and stop trying to justify the indefensible. And I will close with something I wrote for the Mail & Guardian on March 1st back in 2002:
“It does not seem to matter what happens in our country; it does not matter how many people try to engage the slippery python that is the president’s policy and thinking on HIV/Aids; it does not seem to matter how many people die of Aids, and how many babies are needlessly born with HIV – there remains the stubbornness and wilful failure to comprehend that is leading us into disaster. Mr Mbeki, you make an idiot of yourself, and fools of us all for putting up with your views. Leave health policy alone, or resign. Please.
Ed Rybicki, Pinelands”
I see no reason to change my views either, Comrade.