Tony Brink, Ron Roberts, and the Madness of our Lords.

October 16, 2008

To legitimate the rise to power of Jacob Zuma, a person not ethically or politically competent to be President of South Africa, the corporate forces backing Zuma’s rise have spent their time denouncing his predecessor. Any honest criticism of Mbeki’s behaviour would denounce the policies which those corporate forces support, since Mbeki’s flaws arose from his compromise with the right wing which eventually destroyed him. Fortunately, vast numbers of false issues have been promoted by the right-wing press and pundits down the years, which can be repeated without fear because no media outlet will challenge them. The most productive of these is the allegation that Mbeki is, or was, an AIDS denialist.

Here are the unmentionable facts. Between 1996 and 1999, Deputy President Mbeki supervised the government’s policy implementation. He encouraged his friend Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to promote a campaign of AIDS prevention and to seek cheap generic antiretroviral drugs from Brazil; when the US Government, through the World Trade Organisation, blocked this, Mbeki demanded that the pharmaceutical companies (especially the manufacturers of AZT) reduce the cost of their drugs to affordable levels. A person who struggles to obtain antiretrovirals for his country obviously believes that they are efficacious, that they are needed (hence believes that HIV is responsible for AIDS) and that AIDS is an important issue. No more need be said.

These facts have been obscured because Mbeki became President he set up a commission to discuss the provision of antiretrovirals to people with AIDS in South Africa. This is a classic political temporising strategy. Mbeki decided to invite people who did not believe in the value of antiretrovirals onto the commission. This meant that the people supporting antiretrovirals on the commission would have someone to debate with.

These people did not welcome debate because of all the awkward questions. Why has mass heterosexual AIDS only ever appeared in poor countries, and in the poorest parts of those countries? What is the link between AIDS and poverty, and why do AIDS campaigners deny it? Why is so much AIDS discourse couched in racist terms? Why is so much medical information on AIDS unreliable? Above all, why should we trust the pharmaceutical companies on AIDS when we know we cannot trust them on other issues?

Mbeki had made a huge political blunder. The pharmaceutical companies and the AIDS treatment lobby branded him an AIDS denialist for asking such questions. The presence of actual AIDS denialists on his commission was used to legitimate this. Since, in every speech which Mbeki made on the subject, he referred to the disease as “HIV/AIDS”, the media stopped quoting his speeches. The media also clamped down on reports of the Ministry of Health campaigning against pharmaceutical companies and researching the toxicity of antiretrovirals.

For instance, the AIDS treatment lobby promoted a drug called in South Africa Nevirapine, made by the German company Boehringer-Engelheim. This company offered this drug very cheaply, mostly because the US National Institute of Health had banned Nevirapine from America. The drug was so poisonous that it was deemed more dangerous than HIV itself. In South Africa, the drug was given to a group of AIDS patients and killed them off with terrifying speed. Essentially, the AIDS lobby was campaigning to poison AIDS patients, by believing the claims of a pharmaceutical company which faked its Ugandan tests of the drug for the purposes of mother-child prevention.

The AIDS treatment lobby forced the government to adopt Nevirapine for this purpose in 2003. In 2007, when the drug proved completely ineffectual for the purpose, the Ministry of Health did not abandon it, but instead adopted the (possibly) more useful AZT along with the useless Nevirapine. The AIDS treatment lobby required the South African government to waste money on useless medication for the profit of a corrupt drug company. No more need be said.

One might have thought that the “AIDS denialist” label would disappeared after 2004 when the Ministry of Health introduced the world’s biggest single programme of free antiretrovirals. The media and “AIDS activists” coped with this easily. First, they refused to cover it and often pretended that it wasn’t happening. Second, they pretended that it had happened against the wishes of the President and his Minister of Health. This kept the AIDS denialist label alive.

Are the South African media insane? No, but they are agents of corporate capital and reactionary politicians. AIDS denialist propaganda served the interests of both. The propaganda was subsequently used to favour Jacob Zuma over Thabo Mbeki because, it was said, Zuma was not an AIDS denialist (he was not criticised for having unprotected forced sex with an HIV+ woman; he was, however, ridiculed for sensibly taking a shower after fucking her). The fact that Zuma had been the governmental coordinator for AIDS policy and practice throughout 1999-2004, and was therefore implicated in any flaws in government AIDS policy at that time, was suppressed.

Back in 1999, there was a Pietermaritzburg lawyer named Anthony Brink. Tony Brink had a friend who suffered from AIDS. Back then the treatment for AIDS was massive doses of AZT, a strikingly toxic substance. (It was a cancer chemotherapy drug rejected for use because it was too poisonous.) His friend died and he blamed the drug. He discovered that the wild, uncritical enthusiasm for the drug was poorly founded in fact. It was a dangerous drug, which needed careful handling. However, Brink was bipolar, and in his mood-swings resolved that AZT was deadly poison. He began to promote this idea, eventually publishing a book, Debating AZT, in which he proved to his own satisfaction that antiretrovirals were worthless, that HIV had nothing to do with AIDS if it existed at all, and that the germ theory of disease was false. Possibly some of this claptrap was due to his having concluded that it was also dangerous to take medication for his psychological problems.

Debating AZT

is not, however, a worthless book. It casts a healthily sceptical light on the questionable claims of pharmaceutical companies. It notes that “AIDS activists” across the world, along with a huge chunk of the medical profession, have colluded with pharmaceutical companies. It demonstrates that most South African journalists discussing the issue are pig-ignorant numbskulls who uncritically copy the propaganda of the pharmaceutical lobby, but don’t even bother to do this correctly.And, incidentally, Brink dedicated the book to Mbeki, whom he saw as his ally.

Brink’s career suffered; not only had he alienated Big Pharma, but he had criticised journalism. He was never mentioned by any newspaper except with hatred and contempt. His only ally was Martin Weltz, publisher of the muckraking noseWeek, which printed some of Brink’s work anonymously; subsequently, the former racist propagandist Rian Malan, casting about for a role, took up some of Brink’s ideas from a “contrarian” perspective and wrote about them in noseWeek. “Serious” newspapers denounced this; their owners obviously had an interest in rubbishing noseWeek‘s persistent exposure of corporate corruption.

Eventually Brink sold out, joining a German pharmaceutical marketer, Matthias Raath. Raath claimed that vitamins rather than antiretrovirals were the answer to AIDS — and he just happened to be selling vitamins. Brink’s book had denied that any drugs worked at all — yet Brink happy worked alongside Raath because he was opposed to antiretrovirals, forming a one-man-band called the “Treatment Information Centre” to promote Raath’s products. The AIDS lobby struggled to suppress Raath’s activities, arguing, bizarrely, that his innocuous nostrums (equivalents of which were sold over the counter in every pharmacy) were somehow more dangerous than the dangerous antiretrovirals which they were promoting. (The Democratic Alliance’s health spokesperson, Mike Waters, punctiliously explained that his party’s campaign against Raath was not meant to discourage any large company’s sale of vitamins; he was protecting the rights of big, powerful companies against small competitors — which makes sense in the DA’s political context.) When Brink wrote a letter to protest against this treatment in the Mail and Guardian, the newspaper called him insane on its front page.

Meanwhile, Ronald Suresh Roberts had been a small flea in the ear of the white right, exposing the sordid political history of Tony Leon (leader of the DA), intermittently promoting Africanism within the ANC, and writing an unsympathetic biography of prizewinning white leftist author Nadine Gordimer. He sprang to prominence when the white right discovered that he was writing a book exposing the falsity of press criticisms of Mbeki. Rian Malan produced a vicious attack on the (then unpublished) book in noseWeek — showing how the magazine was leaning towards the white right, softening its stance against corporate corruption and becoming a trustworthy source of anti-ANC propaganda.

Roberts was an irascible West Indian with little liking for white South Africans and little understanding of South African politics. When, in order to undermine the book, the Sunday Times trashed him with a personal attack called “The unlikeable Mr. Roberts”, Roberts sued them. He did not seem to realise that the South African corporate establishment controlled the judiciary and the press, and so he was astonished to find himself being pilloried by the court. The Sunday Times naturally brayed with delight, as South African newspapers always do.

When Roberts’ book, Fit to Govern, came out, it was extraordinarily unreviewed. Sunday Times and Mail and Guardian denounced the book repeatedly because it was associated with Thabo Mbeki, the notorious AIDS denialist, anti-white racist and supporter of Robert Mugabe. Since the book effectively disproved all three assertions, and the newspapers refused to reproduce any of the book’s facts or arguments. The only actual review of the book was performed by Patrick Bond, who denounced it for daring to point out that South Africa spent proportionally more on social welfare than Venezuela — which Bond deemed a vicious slur on his hero Hugo Chavez.

Intriguingly, Brink had cooperated with Roberts. Brink had found that his second book, Just Say Yes, Mr. President, could not be published in South Africa in the current ideological climate. (In South Africa, freedom of expression is limited to those endorsed by a narrow establishment, a condition approved by the corporate-funded Freedom of Expression Institute.) Roberts, meanwhile, was funded by Mbeki and would undoubtedly get his book out. Brink handed his manuscript to Roberts to see what he could do with it — only to that Roberts was not an AIDS denialist, that the book depicted Brink as an exploitative crank, and that it proved, comprehensively, that Mbeki was not an AIDS denialist.

Which had about the impact of shouting up a drainpipe in Afghanistan. Roberts dropped out of sight. The lies exposed in his book were endlessly reiterated in the media as a preparation for the coronation of Emperor Zuma. Evidently, the South African public sphere has been seized by corporate interests and turned into an echo-chamber where those endorsed by big business are free to say whatever they like so long as big business likes it too, regardless of veracity. It makes Equatorial Guinea look like a positive ferment of socio-political debate.

But now, the punch-line of this whole dirty joke. After Mbeki was removed, the Mail and Guardian ran an issue celebrating the fact. No doubt to rub his nose in the mess, they invited Roberts to write a short piece, which observed that both Mbeki and Zuma were victims of media propaganda, and that the most egregious of all was the propaganda about supposed AIDS denialism, citing some ridiculous but never-doubted remarks made by “AIDS activists” Edwin Cameron and Zackie Achmat.

Achmat, in the same issue, claimed that Mbeki had caused two million deaths due to AIDS. Since Achmat’s Treatment Action Campaign acknowledged that before 2001 antiretrovirals were unaffordable, and since antiretrovirals became available in 2004, it follows that this had to happen over a period of three years. Even if one assumes (falsely) that the delay was entirely due to Mbeki, the figures don’t add up. In South Africa there are no accurate figures, but perhaps half a million people actually have AIDS. Untreated, AIDS will kill you in a few years. Hence, probably fewer than a quarter of a million people died of AIDS during this period, not all of whom would have been saved if antiretrovirals had been available in 2001. Yet nobody (except Roberts) called Achmat out on his obvious falsehood.

Instead, someone called out Roberts– incredibly, it was Brink! The newspaper which had diagnosed Brink as an insane charlatan had rehabilitated him as cured — because he was claiming that Thabo Mbeki was an AIDS denialist. He declared that Roberts had plagiarised his work — relying partly on a court judgement in which (predictably) the well-funded Brink had defeated the unfunded and demonised Roberts, and partly on James Sanders, an ex-Mbeki propagandist who had purged Roberts from their short-lived magazine, Molotov Cocktail. (In fairness to Sanders, he had a career to make whereas Roberts would never succeed unless he abandoned his beliefs.)

According to Brink, because Roberts had used publicly-available quotations collected in his book, in order to prove the opposite of Brink’s argument, Roberts was a plagiarist. (Roberts had made no clear use of Brink’s actual writing.) This is a new definition of plagiarism; however, in South Africa, accusations of plagiarism are a handy weapon against dissenters of all stripes. Brink boasted, perhaps truthfully, that his campaign had successfully prevented the reprinting of Roberts’ book — in other words, that he had done to Roberts what others had done to him. And, of course, he claimed that Thabo Mbeki was really an AIDS denialist, even though Mbeki rejected the slur and had funded Roberts’ book to prove the opposite.

George Orwell once wondered whether our planet was not actually a galactic insane asylum. If so, South Africa is presumably the violent ward.