A reminder of grim times

2009-08-15 00:00

AS President Jacob Zuma’s term approaches the 100-day mark, the media teems with assessments of his performance during this so-called honeymoon period. For what it is worth, so far he hasn’t done too badly at all, proving to be a master of the political fudge and the soft answer that turns away wrath.

Nevertheless, it is dangerous to predict the shape of what’s to come over the next five or maybe 10 years by extrapolating from a mere three months. One only has to cast one’s mind back to how little warning the halcyon early days of the Thabo Mbeki era gave of what iniquity was to come. Who was to know, for example, that hundreds of thousands of black South Africans would be allowed to die of Aids because of the president’s arrant conviction that he knew better than the scientists?

The rereleased version of Ben Goldacre’s book, Bad Science, reminds one of the fug of fear that Mbeki so swiftly created in South Africa around the HIV/Aids nexus. His cabinet dared not contradict him and challengers found themselves harassed by the pack of denialist Rottweilers assembled about him.

Goldacre, a medical doctor and columnist for the Guardian, writes about how science is distorted, sometimes through ignorance but often deliberately. The book was initially published without its chapter on South Africa’s Aids tragedy because vitamin pill entrepreneur Mathias Rath, a denialist close to Mbeki, had alleged libel and sued for £1 million.

The German-born Rath, who aggressively lobbied HIV-positive patients to abandon “toxic” antiretrovirals in favour of the “natural answer” multivitamins that his foundation sold, last year dropped the suit and had costs of £ 500 000 awarded against him. Hence the recent publication of the unexpurgated version.

Rath and local lawyer Anthony Brink were at the forefront of attacks by the denialists on their critics, on conventional medicine, and especially on the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and its leader Zachie Achmat.

The weapons were disinformation, character assassination and pre-emptive legal suits which invariably failed but were primarily designed to intimidate.

They had more than tacit support from the Mbeki administration. Former Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said at the time that the Rath Foundation was “not undermining the government’s position. If anything, they are supporting it”.

Goldacre describes as “heinous” Rath’s campaign against the TAC, whose highly effective mobilisation of public pressure and court recourse to constitutional protections, eventually forced the government to roll out antiretrovirals. This success so infuriated the dissident camp that Brink bizarrely laid a charge of genocide against Achmat with the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Brink implored the ICC to ensure that when Achmat was convicted and imprisoned, he be force-fed antiretrovirals “until he gives up the ghost on them, so as to eradicate this foulest, most loathsome, unscrupulous and malevolent blight on the human race, that has plagued and poisoned the people of South Africa, mostly black, mostly poor …”.

Although this is all recent history, the pace of South Africa’s political narrative is such that one quickly forgets the grimness of the Mbeki era. We know now that if anyone were to face charges of genocide, it would not be Achmat but Mbeki. A Harvard University study last year conservatively estimated that the prolonged refusal by the Mbeki government to provide antiretroviral drugs through the public health-care system resulted in some 365 000 early deaths.

It is difficult to imagine that Zuma could prove to be worse than Mbeki, although given the nature of politicians and the forces vying for dominance in Zuma’s administration, it would be foolhardy for any honeymoon analyst to make that prediction.

The “missing chapter” and details of Goldacre’s book can be accessed at www.badscience.net

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