Cyril Ramaphosa and AIDS

The latest print issue of Foreign Policy Magazine has an essay by South African writer Johnny Steinberg on creative writing about the AIDS pandemic in that country. Steinberg covers the usual ground: that mainly white, gay men have written memoirs about AIDS; that memoirs about black men’s experiences with AIDS were written by white women; that popular AIDS media (like LoveLife, the AIDS education campaign targeted at teens) do not openly make connections between sex and AIDS; and that fiction writing by black writers, until recently, have shied away from themes of sex and sexuality. Nothing new here. However, the piece does get interesting when Steinberg asserts that former President Thabo Mbeki, a known AIDS denialist, “… was not necessarily the outlier he is often said to be [on AIDS]. His dabbling in quack science and AIDS denialism was symptomatic of a great unease in South Africa’s political culture, one that has translated into an eerie silence on the page.”  Steinberg then makes these claims about Cyril Ramaphosa, once touted as a successor to Nelson Mandela as South African President:

In August 1988, when most South Africans thought of AIDS as a Western problem and black politics was consumed by the fight against apartheid, a group of sociologists presented a draft paper on HIV to a small audience in Johannesburg. Although HIV prevalence in the country was then less than 0.1 percent, the authors wrote, the mining industry was structured in such a way that it could potentially disperse the virus to all four corners of the region. South Africa’s quarter-of-a-million migrant mineworkers lived two lives, many with at least two long-term lovers, one at work and the other at home in the countryside.

Shortly after the presentation, Cyril Ramaphosa, the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers and one of the country’s most powerful anti-apartheid figures, called Eddie Webster, director of the institute that had undertaken the research, and asked that the paper be canned, complaining that the research presumed black men to be promiscuous and was thus tinged with racism. As Webster told me recently, the two men haggled. Webster tweaked the report’s language. Ramaphosa remained unsatisfied. Eventually, they agreed that the paper could be published — but not in South Africa.

Six years later, Nelson Mandela made it known that Ramaphosa was his preferred candidate to follow him as South Africa’s president. In the end, Mandela was overruled and succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, whose presidency will be remembered above all for his questioning of the link between HIV and AIDS.

For Steinberg, “… the tetchy exchange between Ramaphosa and Webster suggests [that] Mbeki was not necessarily the outlier he is often said to be.” So Steinberg prints allegations about Ramaphosa based on an “exchange.” If I read it right, Steinberg is claiming that Ramaphosa was (still is too?) an AIDS denialist.  From the little that I know about Ramaphosa this sounds fanciful. Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman now, served until recently on the board of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and has publicly criticized Mbeki’s fanciful views on HIV/Aids. So the claims about Ramaphosa came as a surprise to me at least. I’ve never heard this story before and wonder what the reaction to this news has been inside the country.

Here‘s the link to Steinberg’s piece.



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

1 Comment
  1. I think Steinberg may be reading too much into the exchange: The recollection in the book is based entirely on hearsay, and we are only given a very superficial paraphrase of the thesis of the paper.

    I often get pissed off at media coverage in SA of rape and Zuma (for e.g.). Whatever the demerits of Zuma's behaviour and the pervasive culture of sexual violence in South Africa – the media often openly perpetuates cliched establishment obsessions with the over-sexed, if not uncontrollably voracious, polygamist, primitive-dick-swinging black man. Such prejudices were alive and well in the SA academy in 1998 (I was there).

    There are numerous permutations of nuance that could be lost in the paraphrase and/or recollection of a paper and events a decade and half old, that could very easily support Cyril's intervention.

    A Harvard paper published in 2008 found that a counter-factual administration to Mbeki's could have saved 365,000 lives ( The bigger question (and I have no idea if Steinberg interrogates it in his book) is why the presumed challengers to Mbeki – the Ramaphosa's, Zuma's, Motlanthe's and Sexwale's of this world – allowed themselves to be trapped for so long in complicit silence? Some (and Cyril – to my knowledge has remained tongue-tied) have regained their moral voice in the cause of expedience.

    The ANC prides itself on collective decision-making, consultation and consideration, and they shouldn't be allowed to bask in self-reflected glory only when history shines benevolently on the party. Either the collective is collectively guilty of Mbeki's sins, or they were railroaded into egregious and cowardly silence. Any self-reflection on this dichotomy is yet to publicly take form… and until it does the ANC is the poorer for it.

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