The Politics of Conspiracy Theories: On AIDS in South Africa and a Few Other Global Plots

Article excerpt

ON 15 SEPTEMBER 2000, the headline of the South African weekly Mail & Guardian ran: "AIDS tragedy turns to farce."1 The paper was referring to an odd event that had taken place some days before during a popular radio talk show. As star journalist John Robbie was interviewing the Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, he mentioned a book that the member of Thabo Mbeki's cabinet was said to have distributed amongst the country's provincial health ministers during a national meeting on the epidemic. Published in 1991, Behold a Pale Horse is a bestseller by Milton William Cooper, a former United States Navy intelligence service agent, describing a series of plots that involved the Freemasons, the Illuminati, as well as space aliens. They included the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, supposedly organized by secret societies, and a specter of mass shootings, to be carried out via mind control techniques supposedly facilitated by Prozac. One of the conspiracies discussed in the volume concerns the "extermination of undesirable elements of society, specifically the black, Hispanic, and homosexual populations" through the dissemination of HIV by means of the smallpox vaccine in Africa during the 1970s. The putative distribution of this book to health officials seemed to be the final-and most perplexing-episode in the virulent controversy that the South African government had initiated a few months before by challenging the universally accepted interpretation of the origins and treatment of AIDS. Indignant at the refusal of Minister Tshabalala-Msimang to answer his question about the book's distribution, the inexperienced journalist Robbie lost his temper, and his interlocutor dramatically left the talk show. The scandal that erupted became a national affair and further kindled tensions in South African politics.

That a member of the cabinet could be receptive to this sort of literature and attempt to proselytize her colleagues when she was supposed to be developing programs to halt the progression of the disease was shocking to many. In 2000, the country had recently discovered the toll of the epidemic, with one-fifth of its adult population infected and a projected decrease in life expectancy of twenty years within the next two decades. South African President Thabo Mbeki had provoked worldwide astonishment by giving credit to heterodox theses inspired by the University of California at Berkeley dissident scientist Peter Duesberg, which asserted that poverty, rather than a virus, was the cause of the African AIDS epidemic, and that antiretroviral drugs were killing patients instead of healing them.2 The revelation of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's affinities not only for heterodox science but also for conspiracy theories was the straw that broke the camel's back, infuriating some and amusing others. She became simultaneously the most hated politician and the laughing-stock among the white liberal elite. The Mail & Guardian later featured the headline: "The madness of queen Manto." However, this psychopathological explanation, shared by many intellectuals and activists, missed an important point: the fact that large segments of the black population-from the townships and former homelands as well as of the educated middle class-were massively receptive, if not to the bizarre UFO plot, at least to the idea of a hidden truth about the epidemic, and more precisely about why it struck so many poor Africans. In its exotic form, conspiracy theory could be viewed as a marginal phenomenon, but in its ordinary expression, it revealed a shared suspicion toward science and medicine. As the clash of interpretations became public, the AIDS tragedy turned less to farce than to drama.

How to make sense of this political crisis? According to the anthropologist Victor Turner, "social dramas"-a term he uses to refer to village conflicts among the Zambian Ndembu, the twelfth century Thomas Becket controversy, the 1773 Boston Tea Party, and the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis-correspond to historical moments when breaches of the consensus reveal deep divisions in society. …