Date: 14 Jul 2009

The Politics and Psychology of AIDS Denialism

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Abstract

South Africa is in the midst of a catastrophic HIV/AIDS epidemic with over 12% of the national population infected with HIV. Although representing less than 1% of the world’s population, nearly 10% of people living with HIV/AIDS reside in South Africa. Probably the most perplexing aspect of South Africa’s battle with AIDS is former President Thabo Mbeki’s rejection of AIDS science in favour of the ‘questioning’ stance of a small group of ‘AIDS denialists’. The story of denialism in South Africa and its political influence is well documented (Cameron, 2005; Gevisser, 2007; Gumede, 2005; Heywood, 2004; Nattrass, 2007) but nevertheless remains an enigma: why did President Thabo Mbeki go down this path? Why did he and his Health Minister reject all expert scientific opinion on AIDS pathogenesis and treatment – even in the face of rising social anger, loss of political standing both domestically and abroad, and at the cost of thousands of unnecessary deaths? How the government not oppose Mbeki and remain silent for so long?