Making sense of the indefensible

Enough commentators have snatched at the bait in Frank Chikane’s hagiographic effort, Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki, to set tongues wagging and cash registers ringing. Chikane’s account of Mbeki’s demise and the sugary recollections of his feats in office have provoked a torrent of rebuke and rebuttal in the media. The book sold out within days.

But this “debate” is really little more than two clichés clashing. The one seeks to rehabilitate the fallen philosopher-king, painting Mbeki as misunderstood, unfairly vilified and eventually undone by betrayal. The other endorses that fate, reciting a familiar sheet of misdemeanours: the abuse of power and authority, overseeing the emergence of a bumptious new elite while inequality deepened, mishandling the Zimbabwe crisis and responsibility for many thousands of Aids deaths.

The evidence favours the latter stance. But both accounts blind us to larger, vital issues. When we condense complicated events into the deeds and thoughts of a single protagonist, we do not learn lessons of much use—besides, possibly, the reminder not to elect anyone like that to high office again. Such stumpy analysis pushes into the shadows the webs of culpability—and complicity—that extend far beyond the lofty perches of power. And it blots out the deeper logic of grave blunders and abuse.

Blame on Mbeki and his confidants
The mishandling of the Aids epidemic exemplifies all this. The standard account places the blame for that fiasco at the feet of Mbeki and an inner circle bedazzled by his denialist yarns. Together, they are said to have devised and enforced an irrational and deadly set of positions that, according to one study, led to about 330 000 avoidable deaths.

No doubt, rarified decision-making, along with browbeating and intimidation, were hallmarks of the Mbeki era. So it is tempting to blame the fiasco on autocratic delusion. But denialism was not only dominant, it was hegemonic in the ANC. For most of that drawn-out debacle, scarcely any ANC figure of note publicly broke ranks, including stalwarts revered for their independence of thought and the courage of their convictions.

The response of ANC parliamentarians to a speech by Mbeki in September 2000 was emblematic of such wider endorsement.

As Mbeki reeled off denialist claims (HIV has never been isolated, the pharmaceutical industry invented the idea that HIV causes Aids to sell drugs, and so on), he was repeatedly interrupted by applause. When the oration ended, the room erupted in cheers and cries of “Viva Thabo, Viva!” as former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein has recollected.

This was not Honecker’s East Germany or Nkrumah’s Ghana of the 1960s. Coercion does not explain such enthusiasm. On view was a display of seduction and self-discipline, spiked with a hint of intimidation. Any serious attempt to prevent a replay of a debacle as unconscionable and deadly as the ANC’s refusal to provide life-saving treatment to people with HIV has to come to grips with each of those elements.

The ANC’s tradition of “democratic centralism” did not offer much of an alibi for those cheering MPs. Ridiculing the Aids epidemic and denying treatment to the afflicted was never ANC policy. Members had every right—in fact, a huge duty—to challenge pronouncements and practices that in effect condemned many thousands of people to death. It is vital that we grasp why the vast majority of them chose not to do so. Simply blaming Mbeki and his mandarins blocks such understanding.

Aids misconceptions
The popular understanding of Aids has long been invested with stereotypes and prejudice, including ones that pathologise African sexuality. These follow sturdy traditions. For more than two centuries, those kinds of imageries have served as a screen on which Western cultures have projected their own, contrasting self-portraits of restraint, purity and rationality.

The linking of race, libido and death in colonialist discourses—and the apparent complicity of medical and social science in this—was on loud display in South Africa, not least during the syphilis scares of the 1930s and 1940s, when African men were cast as voracious sexual predators. Such themes would remain a staple of the racist imagination. It is no accident that Mbeki’s more florid interventions on Aids all bristled with awareness of those histories.

Aids denialism in South Africa did not start with Mbeki, but he did join the dots in ways that resonated powerfully with many South Africans, yet escaped so many critics.

Conspiracy theories about Aids had surfaced in popular magazines in the early 1990s and they received thumping endorsement in the ANC’s Sechaba journal as early as 1988, when the lionised young intellectual Jabulani “Mzala” Nxumalo declared that HIV had been concocted in the “laboratories of the military-industrial complex of the USA”.

So denialism was never simply—and sometimes not at all—about the epidemic itself. By the time Mbeki took up the issue, Aids was already doubling as a stage for other battles (against the global patent regime and against the profiteering of pharmaceutical corporations, for example), for asserting “Third World nationalism” and for spotlighting outrages and injustices that had been swept under the carpet.

Aids denialism was fed in part by stinging memories of how colonial power and science (including medical science) converged in the lives of subjugated communities.

An example was the rinderpest epidemic that scythed through cattle-farming communities on South Africa’s eastern coast in late 1896. African farmers resented the quarantine measures applied against them and the forced vaccination of their cattle by roaming teams of veterinarians, accompanied by court officials and police. The fact that vaccinated cattle showed temporary symptoms of rinderpest and that the most effective serum at the time protected cattle for only four months, stoked angry distrust about the motives of the exercise. Western science was experienced as an intrusive and disruptive force, supplementing other acts of dispossession and deprivation.

Similar distrust spiked reactions to flu-vaccination drives during the 1918 influenza epidemic, when rumours circulated that the vaccine was a tool to exterminate black South Africans. The similarity to claims encountered on the outer fringes of Aids scepticism is obvious.

In subsequent decades, science was deployed in increasingly haughty and outrageous ways. There were the “benign” interventions of new cultivation, irrigation or contouring techniques and strict livestock-vaccination requirements. There were the outrages of apartheid “family planning” campaigns among black South Africans. And there were even more extreme examples, such as the chemical and biological-warfare experiments of Wouter Basson, and his search for surreptitious ways to induce infertility in Africans. (Mbeki at one point likened the provision of antiretroviral drugs in the Western Cape to the “biological warfare of the apartheid era”.)

Suspicious about science
South African history, therefore, fuelled a fervent suspicion about disease, science and power and about the loathsome ways in which they sometimes converge. Aids became a lens that focused such misgivings. Aids science was ridiculed as yet another instance where Western medicine and imperialist exploitation were fused together.

And so denialism fed a self-gratifying sense of resisting “imperialist bullying”, of defying power. But there was an obvious contradiction in such posturing. Nowhere else in the world were denialist claims issued from such lofty heights and with such insistence as in South Africa. This was no underdog digging in its heels; it was also power pronouncing.

Still, the broader point stands. In South Africa, denialism functioned as a grammar—and a substitute—for broader political and ideological affirmations and tussles. It presented opportunities to denounce racism. It vented frustrations and passions that had been stifled during the 1990s, when stability and makeshift conciliation were the priorities. Denialism seemed to signal the end of that interlude. It announced that history still bulged with unfinished business and that there were “truths” that would not stay swept under the carpet. It also chimed neatly with key themes of a then-in-vogue “African renaissance”, by affirming Africans’ right and duty to describe their own realities, define their own futures, and reject the imageries imposed by the West.

Seen from such angles, a kind of earnestness seemed at work. But these gestures were also deeply hypocritical. Denialism was paraded as a form of nationalist defiance. But that defiance was not extended into other realms. Economic policy was off limits; corporate capital had instilled a docile aversion to heterodoxy on that front. It was as if the embrace of economic and technocratic orthodoxy in post-apartheid South Africa demanded, psychologically, a theatrical act of resistance, of anti-imperial posturing—for which Aids became the stage.

These therapeutic functions were vital aspects of the wider appeal of denialism in the ANC. It substituted for other confrontations and made it possible to speak about some of the ignominy that shapes so much of our history and our present.

Writing about some of the outlandish responses to the 14th-century plague in Europe, Andrew Rissik has noted that, “as ever, what matter[ed] wasn’t what was true, but what seemed at the time to make wider sense”. The same holds for Aids and the allure of denialism.

An appreciation of that “wider sense” has been largely absent from the retrospective jousting around Aids and the Mbeki years. It has been easier to park our outrage at his door.

No doubt, he should be held to account. But, left at that, the wider complicity is ignored and its roots stay unexamined, ready to burst to the surface again on some other pretext.

Hein Marais is the author of South Africa Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change (UCT Press). He blogs at //

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