Helen Zille’s ‘AIDS Gestapo’

The leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance makes offensive remarks about AIDS, then smears her critics, AIDS activists and journalists, as Nazis.

Helen Zille in 2010. Image Credit: Democratic Alliance, via Flickr CC.

Just as South Africa is recovering from the havoc wrought by former President Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, now there’s a new politician spouting all sorts of nonsense – this time it’s Helen Zille, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance. She’s been active on Twitter and in the media, calling for the criminalization of HIV transmission, and saying the State should not have to pay for treatment for those who contracted HIV through irresponsible behavior. She also recently held a lottery, where people who volunteered to get tested for HIV could win a large cash prize.

Zille’s remarks have inspired a wave of criticism and counter-criticism. AIDS activist Nathan Geffen has been the most vocal in his carefully reasoned critique of Zille’s arguments, joined by Francois Venter, outgoing president of the South African HIV Clinicians Society, and, finally, by renowned author on AIDS in Africa, Helen Epstein. Several prominent figures have come out in support of Zille, or confessed their befuddlement, while Zille herself seems to have gone off the deep end, calling her critics among other things, the “AIDS Gestapo.” All of which has played out in the social media sphere, on Twitter and Facebook, and in mainstream publications – though doesn’t seem to have been picked up by the foreign media–drowned out most likely by panic over the passing of the so-called ‘secrecy bill’ and coverage of the climate change conference in Durban.

Since Geffen and others do a far more effective job of pointing out Zille’s irrationality than I could ever hope to, I see no point in repeating the arguments (follow the links above if you want all the details). What doesn’t seem to have been emphasized enough though, is that while Zille has been spending time on populist and damaging nonsense, we in fact do know how to effectively combat HIV. What we need is politicians with the sense and integrity to make it happen. While Zille plays off treatment against prevention, saying we need less of the former and more of the latter, we now know without a doubt that treatment IS prevention. Effective ARV treatment not only saves the lives of those with HIV, but it dramatically cuts down on the spread of the virus. Yet just at the point where we have the ability to turn the tide, politicians have decided to cut spending on treatment, placing the Global Fund in crisis and placing millions of lives in jeopardy. While we know condoms protect, we also know there are not nearly enough of them available–in some areas, less than ten per sexually active man, per year.

We also know very well, that one of the most effective ways of fighting the spread of HIV is to protect human rights – and in particular, the human rights of sex workers.

Yet after months of negotiations a section calling for the decriminalization of sex work was omitted from South Africa’s National Strategic Plan on AIDS, at the last minute. While we know condoms work and while we know that protecting sex workers protects all of us, police in South Africa–and in many other countries–continue to view possession of condoms as evidence of sex work, and thus an excuse for confiscations and arrests.

While we know ARVs and other drugs save lives, we also know that trade policies that offer excessive protection to pharmaceutical patents mean many life-saving drugs remain unaffordable, or mean governments can buy far fewer drugs than are needed. If Zille and other politicians really cared about reversing the tide of HIV and AIDS instead of just making the headlines or picking up a few more votes, she would be railing against these insane and unjust policies. She would be lobbying for continued funding for treatment, she’d push for better condom distribution, she’d be calling for the decriminalisation of sex work. She’s doing none of these things.

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