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The deadly hand of denial: Governance and politically-instigated AIDS denialism in South Africa

Year: 2009
Working paper number: 257
Author: Geffen, Nathan
Unit: ASRU

The 26 May 2005 issue of Drum magazine, a widely-read South African monthly, featured a comparison of two deeply contrasting approaches to treating HIV. The strap-line was 'They both look the picture of health.  And they're both living with HIV/AIDS.  Yet Judge Edwin Cameron and Nozipho Bhengu each do it their way'. Bhengu, daughter of African National Congress (ANC) grandee, Ruth Bhengu (a close associate in exile of former President Thabo Mbeki), was, so the article claimed, controlling her infection and CD4 count with a nutritional concoction. 'Like [the former] health minister Manto Tshabala-Msimang', the article recorded, 'Nozipho believes there is a direct link between nutrition and AIDS'. An interview with one of the writers, Edwin Cameron, was posted alongside. Cameron explained how he was treating his HIV infection using scientifically proven antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. The article epitomised the fraught debate on HIV in South Africa at the time.

Just a year later, on 19 May 2006, Nozipho Bhengu died of AIDS. At her well-publicised funeral, Chriselda Kananda, a health programme host on one of South Africa's largest radio stations, denounced ARV treatment and the Treatment Action Campaign, the organisation that has played a leading role in fighting for access to treatment in South Africa.  Peggy Nkonyeni, until recently the political executive responsible for health in Kwazulu-Natal and now facing corruption charges as speaker of the Kwazulu-Natal legislature , South Africa's province with the highest prevalence of HIV infection, raised conspiratorialist spectres about the aetiology of AIDS:

'I came to realize that there is this thing called bioterrorism or biological warfare. This is whereby people can manufacture a certain virus and target a particular community that will be spread amongst a certain group of the population. The question is this: What is this HIV/AIDS and where does it come from? We need to answer those questions.'

As the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) pointed out, Bhengu's death was 'a tragedy that goes beyond her family'.  She was one of the very few middle-class people of African descent who promoted openness by choosing to identify herself as living with HIV.  The poignancy of her death lay in the fact that she had the means to afford not only care and nutrition, but the best medicine.  Had she chosen to take ARV treatment when she developed AIDS, it is highly likely that she would be alive today.

Publication file: WP257.pdf