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The Heretic

Two long pieces in The Lion Sleeps Tonight are devoted to his brawl with anti-AIDS campaigners, a confrontation that did more than anything else to alienate Malan from the mainstream. Malan says that his reporting assignment began as an intended takedown of Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s successor as president of South Africa. Mbeki came under the influence of charlatans who convinced him that AIDS was a hoax perpetuated by whites, designed to promulgate a racist cartoon of African hypersexuality. HIV, he was persuaded, was a harmless bug that just happened to inhabit people whose immune systems had been weakened by hunger and tropical pathogens. Mbeki and his health minister also promoted experiments with a discredited anti-AIDS drug called Virodene, derived from the main ingredient of an industrial solvent. As president, Mbeki balked at a serious effort to combat the disease, even the relatively cheap and effective measure of giving AZT to pregnant mothers. His policies undoubtedly cost many lives.

“I would have attacked Mbeki for nothing,” Malan writes in a preface to the chapter,

but this American magazine [Rolling Stone] was offering me a small fortune to exercise my disgruntlement on the presidential person, and I could scarcely believe my luck. I’d been struggling for years to get naive and idealistic Americans to publish anything even vaguely negative about the South African situation…. Unfortunately, the facts as I found them failed to justify Mbeki’s decapitation.

(That “unfortunately” rings false. I’d wager Malan was excited to find himself once more among the dissidents.)

As in the case of Boipatong, Malan found a valid complaint: beginning in the late 1980s AIDS organizations, relying on computer models in the absence of reliable epidemiological data, overestimated the magnitude of the impending “apocalypse” in Africa. Some anti-AIDS campaigners perpetuated the alarmist numbers even after they had been discredited, using the inflated body count to rally resources for the campaign. And skeptics like Malan were demonized for pointing this out.

Malan does not follow Mbeki into the depths of denialism. But he concludes that the money sucked into the fight against AIDS could have saved more lives if marshaled against TB or malaria or dysentery. “I believe AIDS is a real problem in Africa,” he concedes. “But there are breeds of AIDS activists and AIDS journalists who sound hysterical to me.” These “professional pessimists,” he says, “come forth like loonies drawn by a full moon.”

They are saying, in effect, that because Mr. Mhlangu of rural Zambia has a disease they find more compelling than any other, someone must spend upwards of $300 a year to provide Mr. Mhlangu with life-extending AIDS medications—a noble idea, on its face, but completely absurd when you consider that Mr. Mhlangu’s neighbors are likely to be dying in much larger numbers of diseases that could be cured for a few cents if medicines were only available.

In an essay originally published in The Spectator, entitled “Among the AIDS Fanatics,” he writes:

Some might think it good news that the impact of AIDS is less devastating than most laymen imagine, but they are wrong. In Africa, the only good news about AIDS is bad news, and anyone who tells you otherwise is branded a moral leper.

Let us consider the reasons Malan might have been regarded with distaste. First, it is hard to credit his indignation; he is smart enough to know that the treatment and cure of disease have often been subject to politics, flavor-of-the-month favoritism, and hype rather than cool cost-benefit analysis. Second, the implication that money spent on AIDS was diverted from other diseases depends on tendentious, zero-sum logic.

Third, his more than implicit moral equivalence between those who would refuse treatment to the deathly ill and those who exaggerate the death toll is reprehensible; the people he is ridi- culing may have employed imperfect science, but they were trying to save lives, and his fierce disparagement of them gave comfort to the denialist quacks and do-nothing politicians who resisted treatment.

Fourth, the scale of the response to AIDS, which Malan considers hysterical, drove down the price of antiretroviral medicine—to the point where Mr. Mhlangu’s $300 treatment is not a bad deal. That is especially true if you consider the cost of tending to Mr. Mhlangu if he develops full-blown AIDS, and then supporting his family after he dies.

Fifth, the agencies that model AIDS statistics revised their estimates downward as they got better evidence. Sixth, the actual numbers of people infected ultimately soared, and, while not as apocalyptic as the original models forecast, AIDS remains an epidemic in much of Africa. Even Malan finally concedes that “by 2007 the anecdotal evidence was overwhelming: the phantom catastrophe of 1999 had become real,” which comes pretty close to saying of his war on AIDS hyperbole: Sorry, never mind.

That war on hyperbole, by the way, would be more credible if Malan were not such a frequent practitioner. To pick one example from this collection: in the course of asking a perfectly legitimate question—why so many Africans defend Robert Mugabe’s catastrophic misrule of Zimbabwe—Malan can’t resist quoting with approval a judgment that Mugabe’s death toll was “heading into regions previously explored only by Stalin, Mao, and Adolf Eichmann.”

Malan’s tendency to follow a fair point off the deep end is on full display again in “Report from Planet Mbeki,” his review of a biography of Thabo Mbeki by Mark Gevisser. Malan zeroes in gleefully on Gevisser’s discovery that all but one of the ANC’s leaders in exile in the 1970s, including Mbeki, were members of the Communist Party. “I have read all the major books about South Africa’s transition, and most rang false to me, largely because their authors believed (or pretended to believe) that the Communist plot was a bogeyman conjured up by Pretoria’s evil racists,” Malan writes. “Gevisser is the first to put the Red Faith at center stage.” Gevisser, in fact, does not exactly put the Communist affiliations at center stage, but Malan does.

“The ANC in exile,” he declares, “was a Stalinist organization and anyone who says otherwise is flat wrong,” especially those foreign apologists who “portrayed the ANC as a band of innocuous black liberals who just wanted to establish a democracy like Thomas Jefferson’s.” Come to think of it, “Stalinists” doesn’t do them justice; they were “Red Fascists who wanted to put all of us into the Gulag.”

He goes on to extrapolate his own narrative about Mbeki from the biographer’s material. The story Gevisser would have told had he not chosen to soft-pedal the Red menace goes like this: Mbeki was a brave soul who “outwitted” his fellow Communists, pre- tending to share their “Sovietist” designs on South Africa, until, in power, “he turned his back on failed socialist nostrums and pursued economic policies he knew would make him unpopular with his own constituency and vulnerable to attacks from the left.”

A more sober appraisal of the ANC’s Communist Party affiliations would begin by noting that most of the party members weren’t all that Communist. They took money from the Soviet Union and its satellites, they mouthed the rhetoric, and they aped some of the authoritarian ways—the ANC prison camps for suspected collaborators were shameful, though more like Abu Ghraib than the Gulag. But the ANC also accepted money and advice from South African industrialists once the white business elite saw the inevitability of majority rule.

Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were not Communists, nor were the most influential ANC members of the first post-apartheid cabinet. Malan knows, or used to know, that “socialist” rhetoric was the vernacular of resistance, a class spin on the racial divide, not to be taken too much at face value. In My Traitor’s Heart, he wrote of the ANC’s township followers, “The comrades were socialists, of course, but they didn’t really know from Marx. All they really knew was injustice, and the myriad forms it took in their lives.” Exactly.

In its decades in the wilderness, the ANC acquired some ugly bedfellows. But the fact is, South Africa under the ANC has never come close to becoming Tanzania—an experiment in ruinous socialism. The ANC government has adopted a pragmatic, mostly market-oriented economic program. And even now, as the country is waking to the realization that tens of millions remain stranded in misery, it is still resisting the temptation to nationalize industry or confiscate white lands. Some Stalinists.

What saved My Traitor’s Heart from being a political harangue—aside from Malan’s dazzling gifts as a raconteur—was his ambivalence. If South Africa does not leave you full of ambivalence, you have not been paying attention, and that is even more true today. It is a country where the ruling alliance includes the Communist Party, but the real economic power is capitalist; where corruption is rampant but a vigorous press copiously reports it; where the constitutional court legalized gay marriage and lesbians are gang-raped; where the malls are populated by a multiracial consumer class, and millions live in sheds. It is inspiring and dispiriting, and Malan captures the tension between hope and despair as few others have.

“I cursed Mandela when he refused to shake F.W. de Klerk’s hand during some televised debate during the early 1990s peace talks era,” Malan writes in The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

A few months later I was fighting back tears at his inauguration. I claimed vindication when our currency began its great collapse, and ate my words when it bounced back again. Every white murdered on a lonely farm seemed to herald the onset of generalized ethnic cleansing. Every visit to Soweto left me believing in the brotherhood of man again.

Up to a point, Malan is a useful check on runaway conventional wisdom—he is the guy who hangs hard off the starboard side to keep a listing boat upright. Beyond that point, though, he just sounds like a crank.


Mandela & Communism: An Exchange June 6, 2013

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