Julius Malema's recent weight loss should be praised and not ridiculed.
Julius Malema's recent weight loss should be praised and not ridiculed. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Tweets shouldn’t fuel HIV-related stigma. The Mail and Guardian’s tweets did. Here’s why.

On Thursday night the following tweets went out from the Mail & Guardian’s official Twitter account:

“Juju got smaller in waist and taste, now someone’s spreading vicious HIV porkies about him. Get the M&G for more.”

“Juju got his body right for the summer. Now he has to run from HIV rumours. Why? More in the M&G tomorrow.”

The story, which was authored by Bhekisisa’s Pontsho Pilane, only went live on Friday morning, as per M&G policy. Twitter users could therefore not access the story on Thursday night, when the tweets were sent out.

The comment piece focused on the ANC Youth League’s KwaZulu-Natal branch’s statement that Julius Malema’s recent weight loss had affected his “mental ability” and that Cabinet ministers must “rescue him from self-destruction”.

This was in response Malema’s allegations of corruption in the youth league.

The Bhekisisa article addressed the dangerous associations between being overweight, successful and wealthy in Africa. It argued that Malema should be praised for his weight loss instead of being ridiculed and shamed. The author took a holistic look at perceptions of weight loss and gain on the continent and also included a reference to a study which found that black women often don’t exercise because they fear that people would think they’re infected with HIV if they’re thin.

At no point in the article, did Bheksisa insinuate that there were rumours that Malema had contracted HIV. In fact, the piece challenges the perceptions around HIV and weight loss.

The tweets that were sent out to promote the story on Thursday night were misleading and insensitive. They created the impression that the story was about rumours concerning Malema’s HIV status.

Malema and the ANC Youth League’s reference to his weight loss were used as an entry point to discuss perceived associations between wealth and health. The piece argued that such connotations are extremely worrying within the context of South Africa’s high rate of obesity.

Because of a lapse in communication, the tweets were not run past Bhekisisa or the author of the article before going live. Bhekisisa understands the impact of those tweets on fuelling HIV-related stigma, and have had in-depth discussion with the Mail & Guardian’s team on Friday morning. Proper processes have been put in place to prevent this from happening again. The Mail & Guardian apologises for the error.

We remain committed to sensitive and accurate health journalism that respects not only the South African Press Code but also the rights and dignity of people.

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Pontsho Pilane is a journalist, editor, media lecturer and trainer with a focus in health, race and gender and how they intersect. She’s interested in using communications as a tool for social change. Prior to that Pilane was the senior writer at Health-eNews, and was formerly a health reporter at Bhekisisa, the Mail and Guardian’s centre for health journalism. She debuted as a journalist at The Daily Vox, where she wrote primarily about gender, race and how they intersect. Pilane holds two degrees in media studies from Wits University.

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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.