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Health advocacy organisation Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)  says former president Thabo Mbeki must  apologise to the South African public for the “dissident” views he expressed about HIV/AIDS while delivering a speech at the University of South Africa (UNISA) last week Wednesday.

“The repetition of his scientifically erroneous views with such insensitive arrogance is an insult to the 8- million people living with HIV in South Africa and the families of 4-million South Africans who have died from HIV over the last three decades,” said the TAC.

As a newly elected president, Mbeki criticised the scientific view that HIV causes AIDS. In the 2000s, the TAC campaigned globally for the rollout of life saving medication.

TAC chairperson, Sibongile Tshabalala said he believes that his husband would be alive today if the government had rolled out treatment earlier. “Every time Mbeki makes these statements it brings back the tremendous hurt I felt when my husband died from HIV in 2005,” Tshabalala said.

Other organisations that have expressed disappointment at Mbeki for his recent comments include Section27, HIV Clinicians Society, the SA Medical Research Council, Progressive Health Forum and People’s Health Movement.

Community and TAC members protesting inside Khayelitsha hospital. Photo supplied.

Mbeki, a chancellor at UNISA, was speaking to students, diplomats and members of the media at an event which takes place twice each year and allows students to interact with him on pertinent issues that affect Africans.

“The questions I had back then, I am still raising them today. AIDS is not a disease, it’s a syndrome. The syndrome is a group of diseases. So all these diseases which fall under this syndrome, meningitis, TB, are in the syndrome. You can’t say one virus causes all these illnesses. What one can say is that this virus impacts negatively on the immune system. It’s the weakened system which results in the syndrome,” said Mbeki.

“But there’s a consequence to that kind of thinking which is when you go to test and that test says HIV positive… it does not necessarily mean you’ve got the virus. What it means is that the immune system is responding to something that is threatening the body, and therefore you need a clinical analysis in order to determine what is this thing that the immune system is rejecting. It’s in all the medical documents that go on about it, and it’s correct, because then you have to go and do this clinical examination in order to determine which of these illnesses in the syndrome is the one that’s affecting this person. And then you treat the person for that particular disease,” Mbeki explaining to the audience.

Mbeki also referred to the statements made by the then health minister Tshabalala-Msimang in their response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. “Which is why the question was raised by the then minister of health in a very dramatic fashion. Nutrition. Nutrition is very very critical to solving this problem and that’s why she was saying that we must take garlic and beetroot and so on. She was not saying that with those things you’re going to be cured.”

The Treatment Action Campaign is calling for Mbeki to apologise for the comments he has made. Photo by Mzi Velapi

The TAC would like to make the public aware that he is misleading them when he questions the cause of AIDS. “We also assure the public that all of the main tests for HIV including the rapid (screening and confirmatory) test, ELISA and PCR tests are highly accurate and that a positive test is sufficient for the majority of people testing positive to start treatment. This is established in both the WHO and South African treatment guidelines. We call on Mr Mbeki to desist from misleading the public about the quality and accuracy of HIV testing available in South Africa,” said TAC.

Tshabalala, who lives openly with HIV, said, “We don’t just have scientific evidence that HIV is causing many illnesses. We have people who are a living example, who have gone from being diagnosed with HIV and later developed AIDS. Some of us have gone through that. We survived because we were treated for opportunistic infections until we were initiated on ARVs. 

The TAC said it urges all South Africans on ARVs to continue with their treatment and not become confused with statements such as those made by the former president: “There is much ongoing stigma and denial when it comes to HIV and we call on Mr Mbeki to desist from statements about HIV that have no basis in fact. He is in danger of creating confusion that will hinder government and civil society efforts to further increase testing and treatment and reduce deaths due to HIV.”

TAC’s newly re-elected secretary general, Anele Yawa said a good start would be for him to offer an apology to the nation for all the damage he has done and continues to do. “And if he is not prepared to apologise, we will make sure that his denialism and the thousands of deaths that resulted is the only thing that he will ever be remembered for.”

Mbeki doing more harm

People’s Health Movement committee member and retired paediatric intensive care specialist, Dr Louis Reynolds said this clearly shows that Mbeki has not learned from his past. “I fail to understand what he is hoping to achieve by saying this now. Because due to his denial of AIDS all those years ago, about 300,000 people unnecessarily died due to being denied access to treatment. I would keep quiet altogether about this if I was him. Mbeki and the then minister of health upheld their views and denied scientific evidence that later caused harm,” said Reynolds.

He said scores of young kids in his care died at the Red Cross Hospital in Cape Town and such images still haunt him. “Those kids were also human beings; they had brains and deserved to live a full life. However, they lived to die. Their lives were all about suffering and many would die nine months after birth. This was because their young mothers were denied nevirapine. It was painful, a huge number of children lying at ICU; it was hard to watch the suffering they went through and it was due to Mbeki’s leadership,” said Reynolds.

Mbeki should have learned the danger of advancing fake news and conspiracy theories from their clash with science in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, said Reynolds. “You would think now he must be thinking of the kind of legacy he wants to leave… I don’t know why he was saying that. He should admit that he was wrong all those years ago…” added Reynolds.

The Academy of Science of South Africa said in a statement, “That we have come through the worst of the pandemic is in no small part due to the dedication of the country’s health workers, public health specialists and scientists who responded above and beyond the call of duty and brought to bear all the strained public health resources and science-based evidence at their disposal to protect the country from the ravages of the pandemic.”

The organisation added that it was disappointing that Mbeki chose this moment to resurrect discredited propositions on HIV and AIDS. “His administration’s ambiguity on the role of HIV causing AIDS resulted in a decline in life expectancy from 62 years in 1994 to 52.5 years by 2005. His comments at UNISA will certainly fuel the latent stigma and denialism that health professionals, scientists, NGOs and civil society have worked so hard to mitigate, and place more than five and half million of the approximately eight million patients living with HIV on long-term, life-saving antiretroviral therapy.

Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Sizwe Pamla said as an organisation they don’t have interest in what Mbeki has to say. “We consider him as a private citizen now. We are not interested in his views on anything, he is a private citizen with no political power. He is not a policy maker and should be focusing on his foundation issues. We dealt with him on these sentiments while he was president. So, his views don’t matter to us, we have serious problems in this country. Such as load shedding and unemployment,” said Pamla.

The Thabo Mbeki Foundation said it will not comment on the matter as the former president spoke in his capacity as a UNISA principal, and did not represent the organisation.