An Anti-Politics Machine.

The Anti-Politics Machine was a book about non-governmental organisations in Lesotho and their role in depoliticising that country. It couldn’t have been a brilliantly successful process, since Lesotho fizzles with political argument. However, the concept, and the object of the book, are a useful place to start from. Of course, the NGOs themselves are not the “machine”; they are just a grasping and manipulating tool used by the machine to meet its goal of depoliticisation.

And yet not quite depoliticisation. Anti-politics does not mean no political opinions or action. Anti-politics means having only one political opinion and one course of action, and having no freedom to debate or discuss this. This is in a sense the most politicised situation possible, but it is completely pointless politicisation. Barring simple totalitarianism and violent intimidation, how does one get that way?

The Creator happened to glance at a recent Sunday Times newspaper report. The Sunday Times was pleased to inform its readers of the news that a recent survey had shown that Jacob Zuma was becoming much more popular and Thabo Mbeki was becoming much less popular. Since the Sunday Times is a Zuma propaganda organ and an anti-Mbeki smear sheet, this was a very politically convenient piece of information. But why should this be happening? The Sunday Times asked Adam Habib, an academic who has written propaganda for Jacob Zuma, who explained that it was as a result of Zuma’s charm offensive. (He did not say that this “charm offensive” largely existed thanks to the activities of the media itself). Meanwhile the unpopularity of Mbeki stemmed from poor decisions which he was making and from the electricity crisis. Habib offered no evidence to justify any of these claims, which were obviously sucked straight out of his thumb to present Zuma in the best possible light and serve the newspaper’s (actually, the businesspeople behind the newspaper’s) political interests.

It might have been possible to disagree with Habib, although since the report gave no actual details of the survey, this would be problematic. The lack of information encouraged acceptance. But what was also left out was that the raw data came from “TMS Surveys”. TMS stands for Times Media Surveys — that is, the “survey”, the details of which were not released, had been conducted by the same organisation which owns the Sunday Times. The newspaper, understandably, thought it better not to reveal this because of the probability that most serious observers would suspect that a survey had been created by and for the newspaper owners . . .

It is this kind of thing which, properly organised, destroys perspective, prevents thought and encourages surrender to propaganda, which is the essence of anti-politics.

How does this work? A simple, yet illustrative example is in something which ought to have been the opposite of anti-politics. This was the behaviour of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in 1999-2004, the period when it had most to campaign about.

The issue was superficially simple: should the government be required to provide free antiretroviral medication to people with AIDS? In richer countries, with lower HIV infection rates, this was not a difficult question (and hence a comparison with them was unfair). In 1999, however, it was easy to show that, assuming the cost of AZT remained constant, and assuming that the UN’s figures of about 5 million HIV+ people in South Africa were correct, then simply providing the antiretrovirals for that number of people would eat up the entire 1999 healthcare budget. This was being proposed at the time of a substantial global financial crisis, and at a time when the government’s fiscal policy was devoted to reducing the budget deficit. It seemed almost inconceivable.

There were, however, possibilities. Perhaps the price of AZT and related drugs might come down. Perhaps the UN’s figures were falsely high. Perhaps the economy would grow fast enough to make financing a vast antiretroviral programme practical. Something could be done. It was thus reasonable to campaign around the issue; it was especially reasonable because the government was beginning to debate the possibility.

The TAC, understandably, did not want to get into this kind of debate. It was led by Trotskyites and queer activists who felt that it was realistic to demand the impossible. Hence they insisted that the drugs be provided immediately. It’s reasonable, in negotiations, to demand more than you expect to get. The government’s response was delaying tactics; they raised, in particular, the questions of whether antiretrovirals were too dangerous to use without an efficient primary healthcare system, and whether antiretrovirals alone were the answer to the crisis.

The TAC, to get around these tactics, evolved an interesting policy: they allied themselves with authority-figures in the healthcare sector, in the press locally and internationally, and in conservative politics. What happened was that the conservative press and politicians developed the notion (whether alone or in consultation with the TAC is unimportant) that the South African government was dominated by “AIDS denialism”. This then was described as the reason why the government was not immediately acceding to TAC demands. It was then presented as a sign that the government was irrational and indeed unfit to rule. The TAC went along with this strategy.

In contrast to this demonisation of the government, there had to be an alternative, those who were reasonable and correct. The truth-tellers were the medical establishment and the TAC’s leadership. Most TAC leaders had no qualifications to make health-care pronouncements, but did so anyway and were presented as knowledgeable and righteous. The medical establishment generally chimed in with whatever the TAC said. Sometimes representatives of pharmaceutical corporations were also presented as sources of authority. They, however, often kept a little more discreetly in the background, since the behaviour of pharmaceutical corporations in keeping the price of drugs artificially high, with the support of the U.S. government, was common knowledge, although the TAC and the media establishment no longer discussed this.

As a result there could be no debate on virtually any issue. This was because any deviation from the line promoted by the TAC was met with accusations of “AIDS denialism” which were supported by the press and by conservative politicians. There was only one solution, and it was the provision of antiretroviral drugs immediately. Everything else was an irrelevance, and the only imaginable reason for a person discussing an irrelevance was that such a person was an “AIDS denialist”. While this sounds like the sheerest manipulation, it is probably fair to say that most TAC activists were seduced by this stance and eventually adopted it, coming to believe that everyone who disagreed with them was not merely wrong, but evil. As a result the government, discovering that its pronouncements were never engaged with, but at best derided and at worst taken as evidence of insanity.

The people who were presented as authorities (as opposed to those within the government, who were defined as deluded or demented) and whose statements were required to be accepted without question, were often quite mistaken in what they said. For instance, during the period when antiretrovirals were still considered too expensive to provide, the Minister of Health, Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, fell back on the uncontroversial alternative of promoting a diet which would enhance the immune system — she particularly focussed on garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Various doctors declared that these foods did not enhance the immune system. It is possible that the doctors did not know that they did, because they were not dieticians or experts on the immune system — but essentially they were falsifying medical knowledge in order to criticise the Minister.

Likewise, President Mbeki attempted to counter accusations that his refusal to implement an antiretroviral programme was an attack on the poor, by pointing out that AIDS, like most diseases, was a by-product of poverty. The connection between poverty and illness is obvious and well-known. However, numerous doctors proceeded to deny the connection. All this stuff and nonsense was duly repeated by the TAC and the press, and as a result, the possibility of debate dwindled; once one side was committed to obvious untruths, they were less and less able to deal with reality.

Another problem was that the authorities were often not really authorities. The TAC’s leader, Zackie Achmat, had no real authority beyond his HIV+ status. A prominent pro-TAC academic, Dr. Nicoli Nattrass, was a neoliberal economist with no special knowledge of healthcare, although she wrote two books praising the TAC’s stand and endorsing its position on certain antiretroviral drugs. The formerly demonised head of the Medical Research Council, Prof. Makgoba, was praised because he endorsed the TAC’s position, although he was a neurologist and had scant knowledge of epidemiology or virology. Since these figures were automatically assumed to possess authority which they did not have, and to be superior to alternatives to whom they were not necessarily superior, the focus on authority was itself a kind of denialism.

This denialism had consequences. For instance, the TAC promoted a German-manufactured drug named nevirapine which was much cheaper than AZT but, said the TAC, was just as good. In fact, however, nevirapine proved to be so much more toxic than AZT that its use had to be restricted to the quick-fix strategy of giving the drug to HIV+ mothers giving birth, supposedly to prevent mother-to-child transmission. (This was particularly promoted by Nattrass, on the basis of questionable research conducted by the company which made the drug.) There were always doubts about the merits of using the drug for this purpose, and more recently the policy is being quietly abandoned and AZT being used “in addition” — in practice, instead. Unfortunately, this means that because of the TAC’s campaigning in this field, a lot of people have received essentially useless medication and a lot of money has been wasted. Meanwhile, because the debate is suppressed, the issue is almost never discussed anywhere.

Indeed, South Africa’s enormous antiretroviral drug programme receives almost no attention and no praise in or out of the country. (The attacks on South Africa made at the 2006 Toronto Conference, in particular by UN Rapporteur Stephen Lewis, were almost entirely fallacious, but went unchallenged and uncriticised because nobody in a position of authority in the media is prepared to admit that South African government health care might not be altogether wrong or evil.) In short, the TAC has essentially been used to silence serious debate on the matter and, often, to promote bogus cures like microbicides (which are essentially useless against viruses), a promotion which it can get away with because of the extraordinary depoliticisation, or perhaps better, monopoliticisation, of the field.

The TAC is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but it is not alone. The collapse of South African political debate has largely been driven by factors like this. The consequences of the TAC’s choice of totalitarian approach have already begun to become evident. The consequences of the broader South African anti-politics machinery, however, have yet to be proved.

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