The deep history of AIDS denial

John Austin on the ZANU cadres sent to Cuba for training then secretly imprisoned for being HIV+


The problem with telling porkies is that to maintain the dishonesty, even bigger more fanciful lies have to be conjured and spun to support the original lie.... if one is determined to hang one's hat (or political shirt) doggedly on the original lie.

That is precisely the problem surrounding the HIV-AIDS debate in Southern Africa for well over 25 years now. And that is why an effective policy in fighting HIV-AIDS in Southern Africa remains elusive. Maintaining the original lies effectively lock out the helpful facts of truth from the professionals who need them.

The HIV-AIDS dishonesty in Southern Africa began in newly independent Zimbabwe around 1986 certainly (but likely earlier). The deliberate cover-up and lying was purely political, and has its origins with ZANU's interest in its own power maintenance (and that of the ANC and PAC - both hosted in Harare at the time). I and my colleague Neil Harper came to know of, and be witness to this, by the accident of our wrongful detention without trial in Chikurubi Maximum Secirity Prison, Harare, 1986 to 1988.

The Story Begins

Around 1986 Zimbabwe was critically short of teachers and accepted bursaries for teacher training from the Cuban government. Much was made of the solidarity between the comrades of Cuba and Zimbabwe, the struggle, etcetera. To this end, the ZANU government made clear that the bursaries would be awarded not only just to black liberation cadres, but only to former Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA, that is ZANU) cadres: the crème de la crème. I cannot now remember how many places were available, and some reports I have since read suggest 60 minimum, or as many as 75. It was definitely more than the 36 returned comrades we came across being processed secretly via our section of Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.

Then the LYING

The ZANU lies and misguided cover-up started when Henry Muradzikwa (then editor of the Sunday Mail, Harare) wrote a piece about the waste of sending these cadres to Cuba, only to have most of them returned for medical HIV-AIDS reasons. The story seemed to upset the Cuban ambassador, and ultimately it cost Henry Muradzikwa his job when he not only refused to retract the article & apologise as instructed by ZANU, but actually reaffirmed it in a follow-up article).

President Robert Mugabe told the Cuban Foreign Minister that he was going to deal with the newspaper personally, stating that it had been "infiltrated by the enemy and is reactionary", and that he would would "get" whoever held the pen that produced the report. (Natal Mercury, 22 April 1987)

As reported from Harare in the Sunday Star (19 July 1987), under the heading "Puzzle over students deepens", a ZAPU MP, Edward Ndlovu, claimed in Parliament earlier that month that the authorities were holding the students in a place of detention,....

Ndlovu said that 75 students had been deported from Cuba because of a "mysterious desease" and on arrival had been taken to Chikurubi Prison, then moved to a camp in Bindura. He came under fire from Dr Eddison Zvobgo, the Minister of Justice in the ZANU government, who said that Cuba had contributed to the liberation and that it was unprecedented for a member of ZAPU (a Liberation Movement) to criticise Cuba (an ally).

What I learned in "F" Hall, Chikurubi Maximum, was that the story must have been true. We lived for a month segregated, with two batches of the male students recalled from Cuba while they sat out the last stages of their lengthy detentions in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.

We were told that the female students were being held in the women's section of the Chikurubi Prison Farm complex. From my perspective, I was shocked at this cruel cover-up and the quite unlawful ‘medical' detentions. I realised that if this was how ZANU treated their own, there was little hope for the rest of the populace (me included!).

We detainees were to learn from the students themselves that while Muradzikwa was being career-assassinated for his "false" story, they (the students) were simultaneously being held against their will in a detention style of quarantine: first on an isolated island off Cuba receiving food worse than dog rations; then transported by military flight to resume military detention on an airbase in Angola; then many months later they were discreetly repatriated - but still detained - to various police stations around Zimbabwe; whereafter they were finally moved to "F" Hall, Chikurubi, under "formal" 30-day Ministerial detention orders.

At Chikurubi  they were all required to give blood samples, we learned. In a letter published in the Zimbabwe Independent (7 January 2000), I challenged the minister, Eddison Zvobgo, to settle the matter of Muradzikwa's "falsehoods" once and for all by telling the nation why it was lied to on this matter, what became of these students subsequent to their release from Chikurubi Maximum, and what the party and government intended to do about their mistreatment.

Some supporting facts

My Chikurubi prison diary which I managed to bring out of Zimbabwe with me records, inter alia -

Sat 16 May 1987 - All detainees in "F" Hall to old European section "F-A", to make room for new "medical" AIDS detainees ex Cuba, who are to be segregated in "F-B". 26x males seen plus 4x females not seen.

Mon 18 May 1987 - 10x more male students ex Cuba seen arrive, plus 1x female not seen.

During May 1987 - All 36x Cuban Teacher comrades are taken to Chikurubi Maximum Hospital to give blood samples. We later learn from medical fraternity grapevine (via Blood Transfusion Service in Harare) that 41x blood samples were received from Chikurubi for AIDS testing. We later learn that all blood samples have tested positive.

Also during May 1987 - the "segregation" of "us" detainees and "them" in "F" Hall remains in force only superficially (for meals, sleeping cells, ablutions). Socially, the segregation is soon abandoned, and so we learn the AIDS detainees' account of their adventures from them directly - and they are all both afraid and angry at their treatment (these are the ZANLA elite, remember).

Tue 09 Jun 1987 - 35x Cuban teacher comrades released to military transport @ Chikurubi; and 1x comrade transported to Parirenyatwa Hospital. We learn the 5x females have been similarly released to transport.

And some general recollections

Now these were very early days of the HIV-AIDS phenomenon..... it had only recently become hot news in western media with the transmission route seeming to favour homosexuals, drug addicts, & haemophiliacs (with early indications of central African heterosexual transmission for not fully understood reasons).

Neil Harper and I were very much involved with the HIV-AIDS debates amongst us detainees in Chikurubi. My friend in "F" Hall, Listone Mabuto, later died of AIDS - his wife Lettie had been infected from an AIDS-contaminated blood transfusion received during childbirth from the Harare Blood Bank (which traditionally got their bulk blood stocks from the military and police). Lettie predeceased Listone, but not before infecting him.

My agenda here is to lay bare the deliberate, collective and co-operative cover-up and lying that has been going on in Liberation Movement High Commands and their Politburos on this issue for so long - organisations that are now ruling Southern Africa in sympathetic collaborative dishonesty on this particular and life-threatening pandemic. The maintenance of this first big lie has more than exacerbated an already serious problem that was obvious over 25 years ago, viz:-


  • How many more cadres and civilians in the region have died needlessly, whilst those at the top maintained the lie and cover-up?
  • How much HIV-AIDS infected blood was being transfused to healthy patients in ignorance, whilst those at the top continued the lie and cover-up?
  • Factor in Virodene, the Tanzanian secret trials, and still those at the top continue the lies and cover-up (even sponsoring snake oil charlatans with taxpayer money)
  • Surely, if you know and keep quiet, that is one thing. If you know and lie, and your people are dying, has your leadership not then crossed the line to politically culpable genocide?


Interestingly, a few years after I arrived in the UK, one of church missionaries returned from her life's work at Lukolwe Mission Hospital in a very remote region of western Zambia. The mission hospital was the nearest facility for the Zambian Army based in the area. I was to learn that the Zambian Brigade Commander understood the HIV+ status of his troops was likely running at around 90%.

It seemed sexual health in the Zambian army was unlikely to be any different in liberation movement guerrillas; and therein regionally lay vital clues to the path of the heterosexual AIDS transmission in the SADC region. Obviously, the military are unlikely to be readily available or willing to subject themselves to the scrutiny of medical researchers. The medical fraternity can only be misled though if the truth is still deliberately and systematically denied - for over 25 years now in SADC.

The debate belongs in the open, along with the truth and facts - all of them, warts and all.

John V Austin,  London

Former head: Harare Customs & Excise.

Entries in John Austin's prison diary May 17 and 18 1987:

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