State of Denial: Finding Meaning in South Africa's AIDS Crisis

By Riddick, Ruth | Conscience, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

State of Denial: Finding Meaning in South Africa's AIDS Crisis


Riddick, Ruth, Conscience


"THE PROCESS OF GRIEF ALWAYS INCLUDES SOME QUALities of anger.... It is well to remember that it is not up to us to judge such feelings as bad or shameful but to understand their true meaning and origin as something very human." ELIZABETH KUBLER-ROSS, MD, On Death and Dying

South African filmmaker Elaine Epstein has made a very angry documentary about the AIDS crisis. Currently touring the US as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and shown on public television in the fall, State of Denial lays the blame for this crisis squarely on governmental denial, specifically on the refusal of South African President Thabo Mbeki to agree that AIDS is caused by a virus treatable with antiretroviral drugs. It's impossible not to be moved by the force and humanity of her subjects and her polemic.

Describing the background to the film, Epstein comments, "Over the last few years, Mbeki's questioning of the science behind AIDS and the safety- of commonly prescribed anti-HIV medication has obstructed efforts to reduce infection rates and prevent thousands of people from dying unnecessarily from this disease."

"Shortly before I started shooting in 2000, Mbeki consulted dissident scientists who believe that HIV is not the cause Of AIDS," adds Epstein. (Prominent among these dissidents is Peter Duesberg, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who claims there is no virological or epidemiological evidence to back up the HIV/AIDS hypothesis.) Subsequently,

Mbeki famously posed the rhetorical question: "Does HIV cause AIDS? HOW can a virus cause a syndrome? It can't!" Mbeki's position has been echoed by African National Congress chief electoral officer Peter Mokaba, who told Johannesburg's Mail & Guardian newspaper in March 2002, "The story that my causes AIDS is being promoted through lies, pseudo-science, violence, terrorism and deception."

"We are urged to abandon science and adopt the religion and superstition that HIV exists and that it causes AIDS," Mokaba continued. "We refuse to be agents for using our people as guinea pigs and have a responsibility to defeat the intended genocide and dehumanization of the African child, mother, family and society."

One of Epstein's subjects and a columnist with Sowetan, South Africa's largest newspaper, Lucky Mazibuko lives with HIV. He is unimpressed by such posturing. "Our elected political leaders are both too sophisticated and too superficial," he wrote. "The fact that 600 people, largely African people, die from HIV-related infections on a daily basis does not seem to have a bearing on their consciences." Diagnosed some II years ago when still in Iris early twenties, Mazibuko is the first journalist in South Africa to disclose his positive status.

We are given no reasons as to why the widely respected Mbeki has taken this stance. (No less a moral authority than Nelson Mandela has praised the high intelligence and integrity, of his colleague and successor--such a speech is shown in the film. And the history of South Africa's antiapartheid movement would be criminally incomplete without an account of Mbeki's contribution before and after the regime change.)

Explaining Mbeki is not, however, the award-winning filmmaker's mission. "It is my greatest hope that State of Denial will be a catalyst for change," says Epstein. "As a native South African, I had witnessed firsthand the death and devastation that HIV/AIDS has wreaked in this area of the world." Epstein made State of Denial because "I felt that the television programs I was seeing on AIDS in Africa did not reflect my experience with the epidemic or the people affected by it."

MBEKI CHANGES COURSE

And Epstein may have already, at least partway, met her goal. In November, on the recommendation of a task force established after State of Denial screened at the influential Sundance Film Festival, the South African government announced an "Operational Plan for Comprehensive Treatment and Care for HIV and AIDS. …

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