Greetings in 2003, for those to whom I have not yet written. Professor Sam Mhlongo thought it was time to send out an insider view of the situation here in South Africa. So here I am once more to attempt to catch the momentous last few days.
Dr Roberto Giraldo left last night after what has been a hectic four days since he landed on Saturday. I joked with him that he was leaving triumphant, and not to worry Sam and I will handle the fall out.
He took South Africa - and southern Africa - by storm after being invited to give the keynote address outlining the latest science in the prevention and treatment of Aids. He came first in November last year to the planning meeting - and endeared himself to everyone there. His presentation eventually was based on argument over 35 A4 pages, with 315 scientific references. An absolute masterpiece of concise writing. I will leave him to send electronic copies since I only have it in hard copy.
I was not able to witness Roberto in performance but he did a dress rehearsal for me with the two of us looking at his slides as he held them up to the light in my study here in Sandton. Those that know Roberto will appreciate how electrifying he can be. He received a standing ovation for his presentation. In fact it is quite true to say he was taken into the hearts of an over whelming majority. The UNICEF delegate assigned to discuss his paper, actually opened his talk with a slide taken from Roberto's website. He said there was common ground on the role of nutrition in health. No qualifications at all.
This is progress since the rejection of the idea of an invitation to Roberto by director of UNAIDS Stephen Lewis last week. of course Lewis wasn't at the SADC meeting. So a commonality of spirit took root at the conference. If you think of the people that would have been there, a very important development.
We have got to the stage here, where the more the mainstreamers attack anyone opposing them, the more they alienate ordinary people. We don't have to do anything anymore because every time one of them opens their mouth the more the contradictions, inconsistencies and questions arise by more people every time there is another HIV/AIDS photo-opportunity or press release. It is astonishing how many people from all walks of life have jumped out of the closet this last few days and cogently argued dissident science.
One reporter Lynne Altenroxel of The Star and her associate at Independent Newspapers Liz Clarke tried to drum up the headline: Outcry over invitation to dissident. The only people the two could find who were upset at the invitation were activists from two non-government organisations (Treatment Action Campaign and National Association of People Living With Aids, both of whom vociferously campaign for anti-retroviral therapy), the administrator of a union organisation and one scientist who apparently asked not to be named.
When asked what he thought of the invitation to Roberto, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba apparently was only prepared to say: "It's strange." (Just to remind you - he was the most vociferous opponent of President Mbeki's initiative to open discussions to dissidents, but who nevertheless agreed to sit on the panel. At the second meeting of the panel 4 July 2000, he agreed to do experiments with dissidents as announced at a press conference . At the time he was president of the Medical Research Council, but for what ever reason his contract was not renewed. He is now vice-chancellor of the University of Natal, hot bed of mainstream HIV/AIDS with hundreds of millions of rands from UN and Harvard and goodness knows who all to run vaccine trials with bits of modified equine flu virus and give antiretrovirals to KwaZulu-Natal.) Under the circumstances, the strangest thing is Makgoba's answer, if you think about it.
Of course, the biggest newspaper group in the country running days of headlines about the "scandal of inviting a dissident" (even if the same people were quoted over and over) was another strange event. So was the fact that not another reporter picked up the angle - not in radio, TV or print. The tension was palpable and media attention on the event was high.
It was a gathering of health ministers of the 14 members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). (The region is far down the road of standardising all standards and is within a year or two of being declared a free trade zone). The purpose was to agree on the Technical Report and Recommendations on Nutrition policy for the SADC region. This was followed by a closed session of the health ministers which apparently discussed a SADC-wide policy on mother-to-child-transmission of HIV/AIDS and antiretroviral treatment. However, the storm created by Roberto, completely enveloped everything else and no one even mentioned what the ministers did in their closed meeting.
We have one of the most open societies in terms of press freedom, but even so health ministers are able to meet in secret with not even one media person that I know of asking what they discussed for upwards of 12 hours. I do not now what was discussed, but I can imagine that everything is in the boiling pot - and African leaders have a new buoyancy apparent. Why not? Look at what the continent has achieved in seven months of African Union. That's another story the media are not paying attention to, or recording.
So we had Roberto descending this weekend, and suddenly we all in southern Africa had a hero we could share in common. The absolutely indomitable, indefatigable man from Colombia never once doubted his own ability and was confident of an impeccable argument. I am sure he was perfect using words that everyone wished they could use, so they hung on his every word. He taught everyone the basics of the argument and now everyone knows what to say to whatever question arises. If not there is always the hard copy 35 pages with 315 scientific references to support his analysis and conclusions. Always, kind, courteous, positive, Roberto was a tonic we all needed.
On the first day of the meeting on Monday every news bulletin on radio and TV had reports from reporters at the event. In the course of one day I recorded some of the most dramatic exchanges in the long history of HIV/AIDS. veteran presenters and anchor persons being left absolutely flat footed by their reporters on the spot. For once the reporters were upbeat and enthusiastic, they liked Roberto, which the anchor people clearly found most confusing. I guess you had to really have been here to understand, but in the last two days - and continuing today we just have Roberto's voice echoing over the airwaves as his every word is picked apart until it can barely bear the burden.
Everyone is just trying to make sense of it all.
I got to listen to much more radio than I usually am exposed to because I spent the entire time Roberto was here in my car going, waiting and coming back as it were. By far the majority of listeners phoning in on all radio stations I dialed into were supportive of Roberto, dissidents and Thabo Mbeki's initiative in opening the debate to all.
The dividing lines are being drawn very rapidly here. No one is immune. One notable name of the struggle roasted the SA health minister for laughing when she was asked on camera why she had invited a dissident. "Roberto, they think you are a dissident," Manto apparently laughed. "It's a smack in the face of people who are dying of the disease", was how a well known ANC supporter described joking when people are dying.. This was her conclusion after making an absolute idiot of herself by saying that what Roberto had to say in his presentation her children learnt in Grade 1.
I continued my usual onslaught of phoning people live on air or in the privacy of their office. One editor even suggested we meet for lunch which is a first and a sign of the changing times. On Monday and today I phoned in to the Tim Modise Network (now shortwave in Cape Town and Gauteng). The first time I totally supported Roberto's invitation as a victory for freedom of expression. What did you think that only your point of view is free to be expressed I asked Tim who has tied his colours to the HIV causes Aids mast. I pointed out that Roberto's invitation was not accidental given all the work he has done as a member of the Presidential Aids Advisory panel in analysing and commenting on many studies and policies in South Africa, including the nevirapine roll-out protocol. He has worked tirelessly and without any suggestion of payment to finish this awful chapter in medical history. If only the mainstreamers were as honoured, diligent - and enthusiastic - to be members of President Mbeki's panel as Roberto is then we wouldn't be in this pickle any more!
Professor James McIntyre (also a member of Presidential Aids Advisory Panel famous for keeping silent in the panel proceedings, not engaging the dissidents in Internet debate, and not publishing his research for all to critique, while continuously getting publicity for trials in South Africa endorsing nevirapine for MTCT), popped onto the air waves long enough to say that Roberto's message that "if you eat well you won't get a virus" was absolute nonsense. Quick and to the point, but typically, a vast distortion of an argument presented over 35 pages and 315 scientific references, as I pointed out when I phoned in for the second time in two days to 702 just to keep the record straight.
Roberto was interviewed by every reporter who could get hold of him. By the second day his voice was on every radio station in the country. Roberto and I drove to Sam's house from his hotel, I played a tape from the morning interview with him and phone in. As we switched off the tape it was 4pm news - and on radio there he was again. Roberto just laughed as if the whole thing was unbelievable. "My whole life I have lived for this." he said at one stage as we whirled (one always whirls with Roberto) through a local craft market.
At Sam's house just round the corner from Nelson Mandela's mansion, Sam's special spicy chicken, brown rice with fresh vegs and salad late afternoon feast was continuously interrupted by reporters wanting interviews. At one point there was such a push that Sam had to do one of the interviews. Sam's wife Maria and I toasted the incredible times we were witnessing in really good wine as we listened to Sam telling listeners of a national radio stations that Roberto would be back in South Africa in a few weeks time to do the outstanding panel experiments.
So far no news on any mainstreamers who will be collaborating. Can you imagine that? If they are so sure of their science, the genome of HIV specifically, why are they so petrified of anything that smacks of identifying just that for all to see? Why have they yet to file a protocol of how they have already isolated HIV, so that we can all understand the quality of their science?
Well, you all know the answer to that so - aluta continua!
Anita Allen is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa.