Thabo Mbeki letter proves it was no mistake sacking him

10 March 2016 - 16:10
By Bruce Gorton
HIV Aids virus. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock HIV Aids virus. File photo.

When Thabo Mbeki's letter about AIDS that demonstrated that it was not a mistake to sack him was published, I held off on writing about it.

The reason I did so was because quite frankly the issue is long settled, and you don't need a twenty thousand word treatise to say Mbeki's arguments were wrong. You can Google yourself.

And then News24 published a story quoting Anthony Brink and Chris Rawlins saying that Mbeki was right - and treating them as neutral experts.

This then spread across other news services including Times LIVE because News24 operates a news wire.

Anthony Brink is such a "non-neutral" source that he tried to take TAC founder Zachie Achmat to the Hague on a charge of genocide for championing the use of ARVs to treat AIDS.

Treating Anthony Brink like a respected AIDS researcher is like treating Ken Ham like a respected biologist and Christopher Monckton like a respected climateologist. He is a known crank on this topic.

You don't say "independent researcher" Anthony Brink, you say "Noted AIDS dissident who boasts of having influenced Thabo Mbeki's views on the topic" Anthony Brink.

And Rawlins is the general secretary to Brink's AIDS dissident group.

I think you can see the difference there.

The fact that this happened demonstrates the need to point out what was wrong with Mbeki's letter, because I don't think it was out of malice but rather ignorance.

And that is one thing we in the media should strive not to be.

Mbeki's letter was basically full of reasoning that was just plain off. Throughout the letter he pushes a narrative in which there is a dichotomy between dealing with AIDS and prioritising other health issues.

Except that these were all false dichotomies. Poverty is the number one cause of death?

"There are an estimated 3.7 million orphans in South Africa - close to half of them have lost their parents to AIDS-related diseases and there are many more children living with sick and bedridden caregivers." - Unicef.

Mbeki's stance on AIDS exacerbated poverty. Oh, but what about the other causes of death like pneumonia and TB?

"The risk of developing tuberculosis (TB) is estimated to be between 26 and 31 times greater in people living with HIV than among those without HIV infection." - World Health Organisation.

As to why the disease is more of a problem in South Africa than in Europe and America, South Africa had Apartheid when the disease first appeared here. The Nationalist party was deeply homophobic as well as racist, and part of that was their religious beliefs.

Consequently they only took token efforts to combat its spread.

In the US a similar situation would have developed, had it not been that one of Ronald Reagan's close friends ended up dying from the disease.

With the death of Rock Hudson, the American government began taking AIDS a whole lot more seriously, and thus started working on limiting its spread earlier.

We also have the problem that under Apartheid health coverage was not universal, and we have been playing catch up ever since. In Europe and the US, AIDS could be detected a lot faster a lot earlier than in South Africa, reducing its spread.

Our variant of the virus hasn't jumped to Europe and America, because Europe and America have much better healthcare coverage.

Further there is the issue of ARVs:

ARVs work by killing the HIV virons, meaning that people on ARVs are much less infectious than their untreated counterparts. Research has shown that they can reduce transmission by about 97%.

Mbeki wants to know why the disease was so much more likely to spread in Southern Africa? Part of the answer is in our history, part of it is in his own mirror.

As to his quoting of Prof Luc Montagnier and asking if he was wrong when Montagnier was right at the time? The 'documentary' Mbeki quotes, House of Numbers, has been widely discredited as utter nonsense.

The New York Times called it 'a weaselly support pamphlet for AIDS denialists,' and the Wall Street Journal used the movie as a launching pad to discuss the danger of conspiracy theories.

They were gentle compared to the medical journal Lancet, which referred to the documentary as a "toxic combination of misrepresentation and sophistry."

Montagnier was not 'right at the time', he was dead wrong at the time, and a lot of South Africans are dead because so was Thabo Mbeki.

And for all his talk on prioritising those other health issues in our country - funny how that didn't seem to translate into less rats in the intensive care units.

Our hospitals collapsed under Mbeki.

Under president Jacob Zuma we have struggled with about 25% unemployment, our country has struggled to achieve economy growth, we've had massive violent protests coupled with increased police militancy and our average life expectancy has gone from 51 to 61.

Mbeki's sense of priorities didn't deliver a better life for all, they delivered a shorter one.

But no, we have articles saying ""Mbeki was right" and treating noted AIDS denialists who have been thoroughly discredited for knocking on a decade as if they're neutral sources.

The lesson from the Mbeki era is not just that Mbeki was not a great president, but that we in the media have a responsibility to make sure we don't spread that sort of nonsense ourselves. We have to check our sources a whole lot better than this.