Zille in Twitter spat over views on HIV and Aids

DA leader Helen Zille has once again sparked controversy over her views on HIV and Aids. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

DA leader Helen Zille has once again sparked controversy over her views on HIV and Aids. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

A week ago, in her weekly SA Today newsletter, Zille decried what she saw as a failure to address the underlying socio-economic causes of HIV and Aids.

“For the past two decades we have spoken about every possible dimension of the disease, except the one that matters most - how to ‘address the underlying socio-cultural norms’ ... We have, fortunately, beaten much of the stigma associated with Aids, but no one dares confront the stigma of talking openly about the health crisis occasioned by multiple, concurrent sexual partners and inter-generational sex. 

“This topic is the last great taboo in the fight against HIV and Aids. Most ‘Western’ researchers only mention it in whispers, presumably for fear of being labelled ‘racist’,” Zille wrote. 

Zille also again advocated for the criminalisation of knowingly transmitting HIV: “Surely society has the right to regard the knowing transmission of HIV as a serious crime?

“Every time I raise this question there is an outcry.
While it is not always easy to prove intentional or reckless infection, criminal prosecution for knowingly passing on HIV occurs in many other democratic countries,” Zille said. 

She said Africa should have adopted Uganda’s policy on Aids: “In 1989, Uganda had the highest HIV infection rate in the world, with a rural infection rate of 18% and an urban rate of 30%. Their government then embarked on a massive public awareness campaign to change the underlying behaviour responsible for the rampant spread of the virus: multiple concurrent (or overlapping) sexual partners, and inter-generational sex.

“Driven by Ugandan women, the ‘zero grazing’ campaign focused on fidelity. It urged couples to stay faithful to each other and avoid multiple partners. The campaign wasn’t just aimed at high risk groups like truck drivers and prostitutes, but recognised that ordinary people in ordinary relationships were at risk.”

However, soon Uganda had also begun to follow the lead of Aids “experts”, much like the rest of the world.

Furious response
Her comments elicited a furious rebuke from HIV clinician and scientist, Professor Francois Venter, published on GroundUp on Friday. “Unfortunately, (Zille’s) piece is a confused mess of poor science, incorrect history, moralising, and an appeal to what seems to her to be ‘common sense’, despite good scientific evidence to the contrary,” Venter wrote.

“It’s hard to believe that anyone with an interest in Aids for the past 10 years hasn’t heard repeated discussions about sugar daddies and multiple concurrent partnerships, and hasn’t seen failed behaviour change initiatives attempting to respond to these now largely discredited theories.”

Venter said Zille’s recent remarks were reminiscent of her infamous remarks some years ago, when she called the Aids community the “Aids gestapo”. “Her call to specifically criminalise deliberate transmission of HIV is a discredited health and legal position. South Africa, like most countries, has legislation in place to allow for the prosecution of people who try to harm people, including the deliberate spread of HIV (she even mentions this in her article),” Venter wrote. 

“She says, ‘Every time I raise this question there is an outcry.’ Well, I haven’t heard an outcry, but yes, it’s a dumb idea, because the law is a dreadful way to police sexual behaviours, even in places with well-functioning legal systems. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that HIV is being spread by people who know that they are positive and are reckless. 

“On the contrary, all the evidence is that people who know their status are careful. This measure would further stigmatise HIV, allocate responsibility unfairly (people who have sex without knowing their HIV status are, arguably, just as responsible), but not reduce the spread of infection.” 

Twitter spat
Next to criticise Zille was co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign and HIV and Aids campaigner, Zackie Achmat, who challenged her on Twitter on Sunday:

Zille responded:

When Achmat responded that Zille had not “studied science”, she retorted:

But Achmat said

Achmat said Zille’s views reminded him of Thabo Mbeki’s “genocidal impulses” related to the treatment of HIV and Aids. Zille said:

A number of other Twitter users weighed in on the debate:

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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