If HIV denialists have not been pardoned, why should the DA excuse Helen Zille?


Aids has taught South Africans why denialism can’t be tolerated – whether it comes from Thabo Mbeki or Helen Zille.

In the same week that former newspaper columnist and ambassador to Uganda Jon Qwelane’s hate speech case was heard in the high court, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille took to Twitter to share her repugnant views about colonialism.

Zille, notorious for making bigoted statements, romanticised colonialism in her tweets to her followers, who number more than a million.

Now Zille has “unreservedly” apologised – after months of refusing to do so. In my opinion, this is a political move and not genuine remorse.

This, as usual, was followed by a Twitter storm and a plethora of opinion pieces debunking Zille’s untruthful and racist utterances.

Various people, including top Democratic Alliance officials, publicly declared that colonialism can never be justified. But Zille repeatedly defended and justified her tweets.

I assumed that South Africans knew and understood why her utterances cannot be entertained – because they are untrue and deeply seated in racism. But, as I have been told, Zille is entitled to her opinion and it is part of our jobs as journalists to uphold freedom of speech – even when we disagree with what is said. This is true but isn’t it also our responsibility to minimise harm and not spread misinformation?

At the height of the HIV epidemic, South Africa faced Aids denialism. Thabo Mbeki, president at the time, and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, then the health minister, declared that they considered life-saving antiretroviral drugs toxic and unscientific. HIV was covered as a political rather than a health issue.

In April 2006, The Citizen ran an opinion piece by David Rasnick and Sam Mhlongo, two doctors known for their Aids denialism, which claimed that HIV could not be transmitted by heterosexual people. The editor responded to criticism by claiming “free debate” and labelled those questioning the writers’ opinion as “fanatical”, according to a 2007 study published in African Studies Quarterly.

Around the same time Tine van der Maas, who was behind Tshabalala-Msimang’s beetroot remedy for HIV, was asked to explain her quack treatments on Radio 702. When this case appeared in front of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, again, the media house defended itself by calling it free speech.

South Africa has since moved on but it would be dishonest to say the media did not spread misinformation and increase the HIV stigma.

In 1998, a paper published in medical journal The Lancet claimed there was a link between MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines and bowel and behavioural problems, mostly autism spectrum disorder. British journalists picked up the story, which started the era of anti-vaccination. In England, MMR vaccinations dropped from 92% in 1996 to 73% in 2009. A 2007 study published in BioMed Central found that media reports on the study “created the misleading impression that the evidence for the link with autism was as substantial as the evidence against”.

Zille’s comments on colonialism, and others such as her disputing that HIV is fuelled by inequality, are dangerous. Sadly, many people share her sentiments and will live them out in the most insidious and subtle ways. The messages create stereotypes and uphold casual and systemic racism by creating the assumption that black people should be grateful for the murders and exploitation their ancestors suffered.

Ironically, Zille was quick to shut down Twitter respondents who tried to debate that Hitler also “contributed good things”.

Criticising those who support Zille’s explanations is not anti-free speech; it is being aware and carrying out the role of media in society. We should use the mistakes of the time of Aids denialism, anti-vaxxers and Qwelane to think more critically about our role as free media. Qwelane has a right to his opinion – as disgusting as it is – but it is our duty to consider the possible harm caused when we give a platform, and consequently credibility, to such views.

Free speech is important and it should not be compromised, but it should be critiqued and questioned. Our role as journalists is not that of free speech alone; we are also responsible for disseminating the truth that does not discriminate or cause harm.

Sadly, we don’t afford the same privileges to Zille because black pain is dismissed and seen as something that is worth debating over all in the name of free speech.

And, many of us wonder: Is Zille really sorry?

Reporting by Pontsho Pilane. This post was originally published on Bhekisisa.

Featured image via Flickr
  1. Sizwe says

    “And, many of us wonder: Is Zille really sorry?”
    Question is, sorry for what?
    She might now regret that her utterly reckless way of tweeting and talking has endangered the opposition parties’ mutual project – the debunking of the ANC in 2019. Perhaps it was that what was driven home to her in the spat between the Maimane and the Zille offices.
    I’m sure her thinking about colonialism has not changed, and she’s not sorry for that. It is, by the way, what most of the South African white population think anyway.
    Is it not Zille’s role in the DA? Bind the white electorate to the DA course? Whereas Maimane’s role is to do the same with the black electorate? As things stand in SA, even 23 years after the demise of political Apartheid, these two electorates still have entirely different world views, experiences, political languages, connotations etc. And, they know very little about each other. So, the confrontation Maimane-Zille actually comes with no suprise.
    Zille’s excruciating utterances about colonialism remind me very much of mainly West-German denialists of the nazi terror regime. “Okay, Hitler did bad things, but he built the Autobahn and abolished unemployment” was a very common talk by many Germans for a long time – even up to today. Is there a difference to what Zille tweeted about colonialism? I don’t see any.

  2. rossg says

    When evil is done in the name of doing good. The article covers Colonialism, Apartheid, Hitler, and HIV/Aids under Mbeki these are not the only examples of evil being done in the name of doing good, but are the only ones covered by Sizwe. All of these ‘Attitudes’ were supported by the government of that day, all of them have passed on, that is they are no longer to be found in their original form in our current government. What is also true is that this country lives with the consequences of ‘evil’ that was perpetuated in those times.
    Shakespeare that incomparable author of many ‘home truths’ had this to say about it “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” in the play Julius Caesar.
    It must also be very clear that our current government as well as the current government of Hitlers’ country, as well as the current government of many other countries as well as their former governments of notably Venezuela, and Brazil also promote EVIL in the name of doing good, or fixing up the wrongs by perpetuation further evil or continuing the previous evil in the guise of a sister or brother of the evil that was perpetuated.
    In the case of Hitler there are many many holocaust denialists as to with all the other evils that have been perpetuated in the past.
    This brings us to the point where we are now, and that is what should society, especially society in South Africa be doing about these denialists, remembering that those who we accuse of being in denial can quite easily look at our individual lives and point out aspects of our lives that are also in denial and because we are in denial and remain in denial we blight the future of others, a current case in point is ‘state capture’ and Eskom trying to fund future atomic power from current electricity users.
    I am sure that anyone reading this response will angrily reply, or take exception to the last two named items, depending on their point of view.
    So lets say we obliterate Zille, should we then also obliterate ourselves, if not now, but later when we find out that we were in denial. The current defense for ESKOM is that they have removed the ‘power shedding’, forgetting they created the power shedding, ( unacceptable delays and over costing on the new power stations). If this is the case then should we not also remember something that previous governments have done that benefited us now.
    Do not be mistaken and take this to be in support of what Zille has said or ‘tweeted’, but whatever justice is demanded for Zille, we must remember that we too must accept the same justice for our ‘denials’.
    The above should take us to the point where we should be, or should have already been, Zille like Mark Anthony, are rightly or wrongly going to have to ‘pay’ for their ‘unfortunate’ words or actions, that is already recorded in history, but what about us, how do we escape from our own personal ‘unfortunate’ words and actions.
    In this respect should we not look at the ‘unfortunate’ position that Zuma is in now, and what we demand from Zille should that not also be demanded from Zuma.
    How long should a person be given before we can say they should have realised that they were wrong and have made restitution, lets for the sake of this subject we say how long should denialists in the NEC be given before they too are castigated.
    So when we judge a person, should be take one bad thing from their lives, and say that defines that person, or should we take ‘on balance’ whether they have done good or bad? This is a question? but perhaps in coming to your personal conclusion, please remember the one bad thing you have done in your life, in which you are still in denial of, and because of that you are going to be ‘thrown’ to the dogs.
    From a personal point of view, both Zille, and Maimane, and the white electorate, and black electorate (this includes myself) are wrong. Mistakes will be made, it is up to us to rise from the ashes of our mistakes to rebuild society, where mistakes have been made or are being made, they need to be corrected as soon as possible and that person removed from a position where they can make further mistakes. Can we do this? I mean, can we do this NOW?

  3. Jeeeezus says

    The difference between HIV denialists and Zille, is that HIV denialists beliefs are factually false and can easily to be shown to be so (there are hundreds of studies which do).
    Zille stated that “colonialism was not only negative”. While this is a complicated issue, it is a belief which can easily be justified by relevant citing the relevant facts: All you have to do is provide a single instance of colonial rule providing a benefit to indigenous people.
    It is widely reported that the mortality rate of young children was reduced under colonial rule, in part, due to the introduction of vaccinations. In South Africa, urban infant mortality rates dropped to 40/1000, to one third of the rural infant mortality rate (see Fetter 1993). You can conclude that colonialism was beneficial in this instance, unless you disagree with the idea that infant mortality is inherently a bad thing.

    If you read her apology carefully, you notice that she apologises for the insensitivity of her remarks, not the remarks per se.
    This would require her to retract her statement that she believes that colonialism was not only negative. Clearly, if you have access to some historical population data from across colonial Africa, it’s difficult to refute that colonialism brought some positive benefits to indigenous populations.
    An individual can accept this fact, whilst denouncing colonialism – The two are not mutually exclusive.

    Asking whether colonialsm brought an overall ‘net’ benefit, in which the good outweighed the bad, is a separate question which would be very challenging, if not impossible, to answer.

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