The SABC and AIDS: An untold story of complicity – Ed Herbst

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

CAPE TOWN — Sometimes what we deliberately avoid or turn a blind eye to can damage our legacy as much as the things that we actually do. Examples abound in current corporate State Capture affairs, and in our recent and current media history. Propaganda is as much the art of excising, censoring or hiding crucial information as it is the practice of spreading blatant untruths in pursuit of an immoral agenda. President Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism will be written large on his metaphorical tombstone. Here Ed Herbst, stung by the Sunday Times recent apology to a former SABC media acolyte of Mbeki’s, Christine Qunta, powerfully illustrates just how damaging fawning obedience to political power can be. Summed up in a single line, he asks the question; how much did the SABC’s toeing of the Mbeki AIDS denialist line (including active censorship of AIDS matters) cost South Africa in lives and mitigation of a then rampant epidemic? What the SABC did (and didn’t do) in the face of the worst scourge in our history, is worthy of an entire Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The societal wounding will continue for generations to come. The ignorance of millions is no balm to their ongoing grief and loss. – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

South Africa is the epicentre of the global AIDS epidemic. One in every six people with HIV globally lives here and one in every six people who dies of AIDS is buried here. 

In the ANC (AIDS) denialism was not simply dominant, it was hegemonic. – South Africa Pushed to the Limit. – The Political Economy of Change- Hein Marais (UCT Press, 2011).

During a highly publicised court case between TAC and Rath in 2005, protestors from the opposing sides faced each other outside the Cape High Court. The placards of the Rath protestors indicated support for the Minister of Health, while in court Christine Qunta, who has close ties to the ruling party and is the deputy-chair of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board, came to watch proceedings.

The TAC was subsequently notified that her legal firm would represent Rath. – Echoes of Lysenko: state-sponsored pseudoscience in South Africa Nathan Geffen March 2006

The City Press front page lead last week and a Sunday Times article by Barney Mthombothi detailed how the Jacob Zuma /Gupta Axis of Evil continues to interfere in the news coverage of the SABC, the end game being to take control of Ukhozi FM with its 7.7 million mainly KZN Zulu listeners to ensure that the NDZ presidential campaign is a success, thus keeping JZ783 out of jail.

SABC headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa

Zuma has denied this but he also denied owing any money on his Nkandla home and concern grows by the day.

There is nothing new here, however – this is how the ANC rolls. In September 2003  when the SABC chief executive was Peter Matlare, its head of radio news Pippa Green and its head of television news was Jimi Matthews – ANC acolytes all – the daily parliamentary feed to Ukhozi FM was cut to keep from its millions of listeners the news that the Scorpions were investigating Jacob Zuma  for Arms Deal corruption.

Deadly impact

The latest attempt by Luthuli House to maintain the SABC as its most important propaganda medium again raised for me a significant question in South Africa’s media history – did the SABC use its huge audience reach to ameliorate the deadly impact of the HIV-AIDS pandemic during the Mbeki era?

In the first part of this article on the subject I will examine the SABC’s conduct during that era in the context of its cadre deployment policy with specific reference to SABC board member Christine Qunta. The second part has been written by one of the best investigative reporters in the country – my Biznews colleague, Chris Bateman.

The following factors are relevant:

  • A Harvard University study attributed the lingering, painful death of more than 330 000 South Africans and the birth of more than 35 000 HIV-positive babies between 2000 and 2005 to the policies of President Thabo Mbeki.
  • These policies were fully endorsed and supported by Christine Qunta who had been deployed to the SABC board by Mbeki. We know that because she was a co-signatory on full-page newspaper advertisements praising him for his governance policies and the way he was implementing them.
  • We know that in May 2001 the then Mpumalanga Health MEC and fervent anti-retroviral treatment denialist, Sibongile Manana, caused the deaths of dozens of HIV-positive patients by forcing the closure of institutions at the Rob Ferreira and Themba hospitals where they were being cared for and given the drugs that would keep them alive. She also persecuted the doctors involved. Despite the overwhelming evidence of corruption in her department the ANC, using its well-known due diligence policy, made her the MEC for sport and culture in Mpumalanga. She continues to batten on the taxpayers’ shilling as an MP, seated alongside her son, the arch-misogynist Mduduzi Manana who knows how to put a woman in her place.
  • We know that when former President Nelson Mandela became concerned about the deadly impact that Mbkei’s HIV-AIDS policies was having, he was given the opportunity in March 2002 to address the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC.  At the meeting he was subjected to extraordinarily vicious abuse by, among others the multi-million bribe rand bribe beneficiary, Baleka Mbete. According to an ANC MP at the time. Andrew Feinstein, an appalled and humiliated Mandela described this as the lowest point in his lifelong commitment to the party.
Two bulletin inserts

As a television news reporter based in the SABC’s Cape Town office, I produced two bulletin inserts relating to the ANC’s abrogation of its moral and ethical commitment in this regard.

  • In June 2001, I covered a Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) announcement that it would partner with the Western Cape provincial health department and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in Khayelitsha. This was the second project to provide ART at primary care level in the public sector. I did not cover the first which was a Western Cape Health Department project to combat mother to child transmission in the late 1990s when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was the health minister. It was situated in Khayelitsha. At the time NDZ expressed her discontent and said that the project could only go ahead if it was called a ‘Pilot’ project. I did not cover this story because there was no publicity for it but I have personally spoken to two of the people involved in that initial project and it was of seminal importance in that it showed that Nevirapine, an ARV medication, could reduce mother-to-child transmission by up to 40%.
  • In 2005 I interviewed relatives of Khayelitsha residents who had died after they had been persuaded by agents working for Dr Matthias Rath to stop taking anti-retrovirals and, to take instead the vitamins he was marketing. The Treatment Action Campaign successfully sought a High Court interdict against Rath on 13 June 2005. Rath also failed in his attempt to sue The Guardian newspaper in England which revealed how potential purchasers of his vitamins in South Africa had been bribed with food parcels and how they been told that anti-retroviral medication was toxic.

As one of the anchor quotes on this article indicates, Rath was supported by the legal company of Christine Qunta, then the Thabo Mbeki-appointed deputy chairperson of the SABC board. Rath hurriedly left the country before the above-mentioned judgment was handed down.

Through its 250 news broadcasts every day in all official languages as well as !Xu and Khoi, the SABC reaches close to 30 million people. So did it effectively utilise this reach during the Mbeki era when AIDS dissidents were given government support?

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki

According to Douglas Foster who work-shadowed Snuki Zikalala when researching his book After Mandela – The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa, it did not:

On the staff of its far-flung operations, there was no special unit of reporters and producers established to ensure that the pandemic was covered in accordance with the scale of its impact. (P217).

I am unaware of any SABC television documentary that challenged the dominant HIV-AIDS narrative of the Mbeki era which cost hundreds of thousands of ANC supporters their lives – the very people who bought into the Fake News narrative of ‘a better life’ for all while the party mandarins were snouting as if their lives depended on it and were thus able to purchase the ARV medicines which the majority of those who died could not afford.

Combating the pandemic

The medical specialists and lawyers who were active in combating the pandemic at that time can throw further light on the question. Chris Bateman sought answers from leading members of this fraternity and this is what he wrote:

The SABC’s reputation as sycophantic servant of political power, demonstrated by Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s rulings on the censorship of violent civic protest and his sacking/suspension of journalists that refused to toe this line, was arguably even worse during the AIDs denialist era.

Information on the corporation’s behaviour during the now almost forgotten AIDS denialism era of 2002 to 2008 was provided by two advocates, Geoff Budlender and Adille Hassan who led successful court challenges against government. These legal challenges resulted in the Mbeki government being forced to provide HIV antiretroviral drugs which saved thousands of lives.

Information was also provided by leading social justice activist, Nathan Geffen, a founder member of the Treatment Action Campaign, (TAC), former policy co-ordinator for the social justice NGO, Section 27 and current editor of Ground-Up, a social justice news portal.

All three said the SABC failed to use its enormous reach (3 TV stations and 20 radio stations, in all vernacular languages reaching tens of millions of people) to fulfil its constitutional mandate of informing and educating the public.

Budlender, a veteran human rights lawyer, secured ground-breaking TAC rulings forcing the government to provide antiretroviral treatment (ART) to prevent mother to child transmission and interdicts preventing vitamin pedlar Mathias Rath from distributing his AIDS-‘curing’ concoctions, and from defaming the TAC.

Hassan, who advises the TAC’s legal partner, Section 27, on health and education rights, expressed concerns about former SABC TV board deputy chairperson, Christine Qunta, a director of the company ‘Comforters Healing Gift’, who created controversy during her SABC tenure. A member of Thabo Mbeki’s Presidential Task Team on Traditional Medicines, she clashed with the TAC which demanded she be sacked for selling untested medicines and staged national protests in this regard.

Hassan recalled an independently-made HIV educational TV programme, ‘Siyanqoba’ (or Beat It), ‘having some trouble being aired’ with its’ producer Jack Lewis of the Community Media Trust, having to write numerous letters asking for an explanation.

“It was eventually aired – after the (ARV roll-out) judgements – but they had trouble initially,” she said. Her answer to the question of whether the SABC met its public broadcasting obligations during the AIDs denialist era was a “definite no” while Budlender said he’d “be surprised” if the SABC fulfilled its public mandate during those years.

Recalling “denialist-friendly,” actions by SABC TV, Geffen said a “defining moment,’ that led to him “getting right on top of HIV science so I could debunk the denialists on every detail,” was an SABC programme called “The Big Debate,’’ in which leading denialists Sam Rasnick and Sam Mhlongo took on Professor Ian Sanne, a leading local HIV Clinician/researcher and International Vice-Chair of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group, and Dr Kgosi Letlape, then Chairperson of the SA Medical Association.

“Sanne and Letlape were completely unprepared for the debate – they were utterly useless. It left me angry with them to this day. Viewers were asked to vote afterwards,” Geffen recalled. He said the SABC also broadcast a propaganda documentary by Tine van der Maas, whose AIDS-curing diet of garlic, lemons, ProNutro, olive oil and a supplement called “Africa’s Solution” was made internationally infamous by her close friend, then national health minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.  At the 2006 Toronto AIDS conference she touted it as a viable alternative to ARV drugs. Called “Power to the People,” Van der Maas’s documentary outlined how her and her mother’s garlic concoctions brought people with HIV back from the brink of death.

Geffen also recalled Kaya FM and Metro FM broadcasting celebrity and HIV-positive wellness “guru,” Criselda Kananda, ‘regularly broadcasting denialist messages”. Kananda hit the spotlight during the Mbeki denialist years for advocating a nutritional and “body, mind and spirit” approach to immunity and AIDS progression.  Geffen also recalled news talk show presenter Tim Modise hosting “a number of denialists on his show, including Rian Malan, the well-known journalist and author who briefly took centre stage for supporting President Thabo Mbeki’s denialist stance and arguments.

But wait, there’s more!

Explosive article

In August 2007 the Sunday Times published an explosive article relating to Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Pierre de Vos has analysed the justification for that article.

What is relevant to this article, given her role in the Mbeki policy on HIV-AIDS, was the response to the Sunday Times article by then SABC group chief executive officer, Dali Mpofu, an Mbeki acolyte of note.

He withdrew the SABC from Sanef and his letter in this regard prompted the resignation of ace investigative reporter, Jacques Pauw who, in his resignation letter said that the SABC had ‘deteriorated into nothing less than a state broadcaster’.

File Image: Nelson Mandela questions Mbeki’s government’s AIDS policy. More magic available at

Nothing changes at the ANC-controlled SABC it seems, but would this not have had a chilling effect on any SABC reporter contemplating a news bulletin insert or a documentary on Mbeki’s deadly HIV-AIDS policy and the garlic, olive oil and madumbi diet suggested by his Health Minister?

But wait, there’s still more!

Two years before Snuki (Zero Sum) Zikalala was finally shown the door at the state broadcaster, the videotape about the Sunday Times allegations against Manto Tshabalala-Msimang mysteriously disappeared from the archives. Would that not also have had a chilling effect on broadcast journalists contemplating news or documentary coverage on Mbeki’s catastrophic HIV-AIDS policies?

Suffice it to say that the SABC has, unsurprisingly, never investigated this horrifying scandal. I say unsurprisingly because there have been numerous occasions when the SABC, using your money and mine, has commissioned documentaries and then refused to broadcast them because they didn’t fulfill a basic state broadcaster requirement – to lavish imbongi praise on the ANC.

In closing: The country paid a savage price for President Thabo Mbeki’s imperious stance on HIV-AIDS, something for which he has never expressed contrition.

On page 93 of his book, Douglas Foster writes:

While the government delayed treatment, HIV flourished. By 2004, the likelihood that a pregnant woman coming into a public health clinic would test positive for HIV was nearing 26 percent, a threefold increase in a decade. This was a tragedy of hard-to-fathom proportions. More than one in four pregnant women being tested in public health facilities, in other words, were carrying the HIV virus that led to AIDS a decade after Liberation Day.

Party-political monuments

While the African National Congress continues to blight the Beloved Country and to use your money and mine to pay for controversial party-political monuments, no monument will be erected to commemorate those who so unnecessarily died of untreated HIV-AIDS during the Mbeki era. Should that occur, one hopes it will include the ironic words of the contemporary newspaper advertisements placed by Mbeki acolytes – advertisements which undoubtedly contributed to the SABC’s dereliction of duty on this question at the time:

‘Dear Mr President, the burdens of leadership are many and the rewards few. No more so than in the political arena especially at a time of our history when we stand on the edge of a new society while the old refuses to die… Mr President, in those quiet moments when the burdens of statehood threaten just for a moment to overwhelm you, we would like you to remember that you have our support and that of the overwhelming majority of our people. We are proud of you.’

The rot at the SABC started when Mbeki deployed supporters like Christine Qunta and Thami Mazwai to the SABC board and they, in turn, championed the cause of Snuki Zikalala who had been cited before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for human rights abuses – no due diligence there, of course.

African National Congress (ANC)

The Zuma administration, to further increase ANC control, appointed acolytes like alleged nyatsi, Ellen Tshabala, as chairperson of the SABC board and she, in turn, insisted that the illiterate narcissist with a God complex’, Hlaudi Motsoeneng ‘brought stability’ to the Corporation.

Thus it was that the SABC under Mbeki needed a R1.4 billion bailout in 2009 and now under Zuma, in its financial and moral bankruptcy, it needs double that amount.

As the latest delay over appointing the SABC board indicates, the Zuma faction continues in this mode regardless of the cost to the country.

I have always believed that the post-1994 SABC was a reflection of the country in microcosm and the latest attempts by JZ783 to gerrymander the situation there to his benefit is a tangible manifestation of that belief.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.
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