Zille and HIV: A Facebook exchange

A comment by Max du Preez on the controversy and a reply by Nathan Geffen

Comment by Max du Preez on his Facebook page:

Cut the politics already

I'm still trying very hard to understand why Helen Zille's HIV testing initiative and her position that people who knowingly spread the virus should be held accountable are fascist, weird, unscientific or simply irresponsible political grandstanding - and I've read all the arguments. I'm not a DA sympathiser and have a lot of problems with the party, but this should not be about politics, it should be about a deadly pandemic that is devastating our country. Too many Aids activists are engaging in petty gender politics and that is not helping us cope with the pandemic.

I suspect there's another agenda: old ANC comrades and other 'progressives' who are critical of what is happening in the ANC under the present leadership, fear nothing more than the cheap accusation that they're 'soft on the DA' - as one of these said to me when I made the point recently that the DA's running of Cape Town and the Western Cape was commendable: 'oh, so you've been drinking the DA's Kool Aid too'. So when these types criticise the ANC, they feel they have to establish their 'progressive credentials' by first rubbishing Helen Zille and/or her party. This is not progressive behaviour at all. It is cowardice and it is an insult to our intelligence.

Reply by Nathan Geffen:


Dear Max

I'd appreciate it if you put this on your Facebook page. You have nearly 5,000 friends who read your missive against the critics of Helen Zille's AIDS views; I'm much less sociable.

I was disappointed with your comment "Cut the Politics Already".

You say you've read all the arguments. Perhaps you'll agree with me that the main pieces in this debate have been Zille's articles, the two articles Gavin Silber and I published on Politicsweb (and now on the TAC website -see here and here), Helen Epstein's article in the Cape Times, Francois Venter's article in the Cape Times and my article (without Gavin) in the Cape Times. I hope you've read all of them because that really constitutes the substance of the debate on criminalisation.

I can only take responsibility for the pieces I wrote, but nowhere do Gavin and I use gender arguments (petty or otherwise) and nowhere do we call Zille a fascist. I don't believe Francois or Helen Epstein attacked her in this way either. 

On the other hand Zille's responses to us have been less than civilised. "Vested interests", "politically correct", "AIDS gestapo" and "slacktivists" are amongst some of the insults she's hurled at us. I challenge you to find a personal insult by Silber or myself against her. Her arguments have not been logical or methodical; they've been a spraygun of incoherent, disjointed often factually incorrect points thrown about, mixed with anger and rhetoric. In my responses to her I've only pointed out a fraction of the problems in her articles. 

Zille's arguments were unequivocally unscientific. We didn't just say this; we explained exactly how:

1. In contradiction of Zille's claim, there is no evidence showing a causal effect or even a correlation between criminalisation and size of HIV epidemic across countries.

2. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of HIV criminalisation, Zille's writing indicates that she believes it will make a significant difference to HIV incidence. The evidence indicates this is not the case. We have a lot to learn about what's driving the epidemic, but it seems a key factor is that it is newly infected people completely unaware of their status who are the most infectious. There is no way criminalisation can sort this problem out. There is no evidence that the epidemic is being driven by people intentionally infecting others. 

Speak to people with HIV: most will tell you they are petrified of having to live with the guilt of infecting others.

Zille is yet to respond to a point Gavin and I have made over and over: the common law allows people who intentionally transmit HIV to be prosecuted; why does Zille want to introduce a specific law? The Law Commission explained this in 2001. Zille has re-started a very old debate.

There is much else, all explained in Gavin and my articles.

Zille also called for mandatory testing (struck down by our courts several times) and said, despite her subsequent denials, that people who contract HIV irresponsibly are not entitled to treatment (thankfully she's retracted/backed down on this one). These are astonishingly illiberal proposals. Yet journalists have barely picked up on these points.

Yet you accuse us of criticising her because we do not want to be seen as soft on the DA. I have no idea how to respond to that. It's really just an ad hominem argument. All I can say is that I've criticised Zille because I genuinely believe she is wrong. (Incidentally, I am not now nor have I ever been an ANC member.) As for Francois Venter, that can hardly explain his motives; he welcomed Zille's incentive scheme and he strikes me as someone completely uninterested in petty party politics. Helen Epstein is American, doesn't live here and is unlikely to be interested in the nuances of ANC-DA politics.

But here is something that should concern you as a journalist: Last week, the DA released a statement calling for the President to intervene in a dispute between the MCC, an independent statutory body almost destroyed in 1998 by presidential interfering, and a group of researchers. Only TAC and SECTION27 responded to the DA; virtually all newspapers ignored the entire incident. I don't think the media would have been so quiet had the ANC or the Youth League made such an astonishingly unconstitutional demand. Because the ANC is so corrupt and inept, does that mean the DA is entitled to a free ride?

Finally, I haven't said a public word about Zille's incentive scheme. I think that's more interesting than any of her recent comments on AIDS. I hope to write an article about it, but first I'm trying to understand the issue better by doing some research. That's generally a good approach to any aspect of the AIDS debate, because the science of HIV is complex. That doesn't mean non-experts shouldn't express opinions on HIV, but at least put more effort into understanding the arguments and getting the facts right. 

Nathan Geffen

Reply by Max du Preez:

Thank you for this response, Nathan. I appreciate your tone and reasonable arguments. I wasn't aware that Zille wants mandatory testing - never saw that in the media. That would indeed be illiberal, as you said, and I certainly would never endorse that. My posting on FB was more about the incentive scheme and I made it clear that I didn't have a position on it; I really wanted more information and debate so I could make up my mind.

The many reactions to my posting proved that this position is shared by many South Africans. I was surprised at the viciousness of the attacks on this plan by many activists. I will carefully read your piece again and will engage with this topic again soon here on FB. I haven't changed my opinion on many activists's tendencies to first lash out at Zille before they feel they can criticise the ANC, though. That's also illiberal. And I still feel there's too much politics and gender politics around the HIV & Aids debates. It is a burning issue all of us should engage with, not only the insiders

The original post - and other comments around it - can be accessed here.

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