Aids denialism in South Africa

South African President Thabo Mbeki appealed to principles of free speech in his defence of Aids denialism. A case study by Casey Selwyn.

The case

Aids denialism is a movement which claims that HIV does not cause Aids and that antiretroviral drugs – the most effective available method of treating Aids to date – are poisonous and promoted by a profit-driven pharmaceutical industry. In South Africa, a country that has experienced one of the most severe Aids epidemics in the world, President Thabo Mbeki, his health minister and numerous other high-level officials endorsed the concept of denialism in the early 2000s, often appealing to principles of free speech as justification for questioning the origins of Aids and the efficacy of anti-retrovirals as treatment. Public health researchers have estimated that approximately 343,000 Aids-related deaths are attributable to the South African government’s endorsement of denialism between 1999 and 2007.

Author opinion

Mbeki’s appeals to free speech in his defence of denialism were unjustified. In fact, his cabinet actually repressed opinions that attempted to counter denialist claims. These actions hindered the ability of the global public to debate and rebut Mbeki’s claims and thus dangerously affected Aids policy change in South Africa. In this author’s opinion, the overall actions and policies of Mbeki and his cabinet delegitimised what they depicted as their pursuit of scientific knowledge. To ban Aids denialism in South Africa, as Holocaust denial is banned in Germany, is not the answer to this problem. Had such a policy been in place during the Mbeki years, it would have given him and his cohort of what he deemed ‘Aids dissidents’ yet another platform on which to denounce the mainstream western establishment as repressing their right to free speech.

At a national level, the activist community rightfully spoke out against Mbeki’s policies, and at an international level, world-renowned scientists did challenge his proclamations. Clearly, however, the response of this subset of the international community was not forceful enough to enact immediate policy change.  In this sense, there should have been a more concerted effort by the high-level political international community to unequivocally promote an understanding of the proven science of HIV/Aids, to discredit denialism in every available public and political forum and to promote treatment as an imperative.

- Casey Selwyn

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Comments (5)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    This is just a sad concept. These groups arer doing this I believe to have control. Giving a group of people hope will in some ways help sway their support into another direction. There has been no discoveries to treat Aids and if it was the populace would be cured.

  2. Denialism that causes enormous number of deaths should not be justified by being classified as freedom of speech. In a country where AIDS awareness is extremely important this kind of concept is not acceptable. I believe this is an example of a government manipulation rather than freedom of speech, that is why policy change is crucial. People have the right of treatment, the right to know the truth about the disease from a medical point of view, and not to be deluded with denialism that is not supported by facts. Raising awareness and intervention is crucial in this case.

  3. The man who sold “miracle medicines” was called Matthias Rath, and though he did not exactly sponsor Mbeki, he became very influential within his inner circle and certainly contributed to the scale of this problem. A journalist with the Guardian, Ben Goldacre, wrote articles to expose Rath’s actions and their deleterious effects, and Rath actually sued him for libel. For a very interesting and fairly shocking account of this case and of Rath’s role in promoting denialism, see the below chapter in Goldacre’s book Bad Science.

  4. Denialism is modern tool of many politicians and non politicians: Holocaust denial, denial of climate changes secondary to human activity, denial of Darwin theorie’s, denial of the role of condom use as a tool to prevent aids, etc. I agree with Selwins’ opinion, but she (he?) forgot to state an important fact: Mbeki was sponsored by a german “investigator” (sorry, I forgot his name) who sold “miracle medicines” to treat HIV. Denial, in this case, is associated with corruption. Terrible binomium

  5. If I go with my gut instinct, I would be inclined to agree that in principle Mbeki could well be charged at the ICC. But there are a few reasons why I feel like this would not be the appropriate way to counter Aids denialism. International law in and of itself is a highly contested method in terms of how much justice it actually brings to citizens who have suffered at the hands of leaders. In practical terms, being charged post-facto would do nothing in terms of mitigating the actual damage that these policies wrought. The ICC cannot apprehend perpetrators and thus does not have the power to prevent any criminal acts. Secondly, in order to be charged at the ICC – according to its founding treaty, the Rome Statute – a crime must concern ‘the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole,’ and according the statute genocide is considered certain acts committed ‘with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ Mbeki thus could not be plausibly charged within this existing law.

    I know it seems a bit weak to say in hindsight that we should have tried harder. But I do believe that in the context of dealing with such an immediate problem – then or if it were to ever happen again – it would best be dealt with via high-level political pressure from as many nations as possible, particularly those with a political and/or economic relationship with the offending country. I don’t that leaders would not espouse dangerous views simply for fear of being tried at the ICC, and I think the price of attempting to control presidential policies in other countries – no matter how abhorrent these views may seem – is a bad theoretical precedent to set. In the past, dangerous policies have been at least partially countered with high-level leadership and other diplomatic actions such as sanctions. This action was absent during the Mbeki years, and I think that it would be the only realistic solution in this and other comparable situations.

  6. The “author opinion” here feels to me like a rather weak piece of hindsight – “we should have tried harder”. Would that really have made any difference? Are efforts to counter climate change denialism, endemic in some powerful governments today, making any difference?

    Perhaps what actually needs to happen in this sort of case is that people in positions of great power must be held to account for their actions. If 343,000 people really died as a result of these policies, why is Mbeki not facing the International Criminal Court? If we don’t want to see his views becoming taboo, we need to support some other way of dealing with their consequences.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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