The ex-president will be judged harshly for his unrepentant stance over an estimated 300 000 HIV-related deaths, the activist organisation says.
Former president Thabo Mbeki is refusing to take responsibility for over 300 000 avoidable HIV-related deaths under his reign and is scientifically illiterate, the country’s largest HIV lobby group, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), said in a statement on Tuesday. “For this, history will judge him harshly. He deserves it.” Mbeki published a letter on his website this week in which he denied that HIV was a leading cause of death during his presidency between 1999 and 2008 and reiterated his controversial views on HIV.
For most of his presidency, Mbeki and the late former health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, refused to roll out a full-scale HIV treatment programme, which, according to a Harvard study, led to the premature death of some 330 000 people between 2000 and 2005. The study was published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes in 2008.
“Even with a judgment from the highest court in the land and continued public pressure, the HIV treatment programme only gained significant momentum once Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang were removed from office in 2008,” the TAC said. “The impact of Mbeki’s Aids denialism was catastrophic … It also resulted in an estimated 35 000 babies being born with HIV who would otherwise not have been HIV positive.”
Repeating flawed arguments
Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang claimed antiretroviral (ARVs) drugs, which keep HIV in the body under control, are poisonous and that poverty and malnutrition, rather than HIV, was killing people.
Instead of “showing remorse”, Mbeki “has chosen to repeat many of the flawed arguments he used in the early 2000s”, the TAC said.
In his letter, Mbeki quoted widely from a controversial HIV denialist document, Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot and Mouth and Statistics, which was released anonymously in 2002. The document supported his opposition to ARVs and influenced the HIV-related views of several senior ANC officials who supported Mbeki’s HIV stance. Mbeki has now acknowledged that he was one of the authors of the document.
End the word games
In the document, Mbeki claims that HIV is not the cause of Aids, as “a virus cannot cause a syndrome [Aids is a syndrome because it comprises of a collection of disease].
“Mbeki is simply wrong. A virus can cause a syndrome and it has long ago been proven that HIV causes Aids. His word games in this regard are a cowardly form of confiscation [sic],” the TAC said.
In reaction to Mbeki’s statements, the South African National Aids Council (Sanac) released a statement on Tuesday that called on South Africans not to engage in a debate “that will take us back to a factious past and can only serve as a distraction”.
“South Africa has the largest antiretroviral treatment programme in the world. This is something we should all be proud of as a nation. We also have one of the most effective programmes to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth and the breastfeeding period. This is due to the roll-out of the antiretroviral treatment programme,” Sanac said.
Mia Malan is Bhekisisa's editor-in-chief and executive director. Under her leadership, Bhekisisa’s online readership increased 30 fold and its donor funding eightfold between 2013 and 2019. Malan has won more than 20 African journalism awards for her work and is a former fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.