Interview: Dr William Malegapuru Makgoba

The President of the Medical Research Council talks to Simon Dagut.

How did the first meeting of the presidential Aids advisory panel go?
The discussions were up and down. As the chief negotiator said, there was no way you could bring two positions that are so polarised into a single position in two days. But people spoke with honesty, respect and passion. In the end, as the media has correctly reported, there was a point that we all shared - that there are a number of simple projects that relate to the South African epidemic that we can all do together. These are not costly or time-consuming projects and they will give us a picture of the epidemic in South Africa and also of the various relationships between clinical diagnosis, the HIV test and the presence of the virus as defined by DNA. Each of these tests has a different level of sensitivity and specificity. If these tests are correlate, it will be very difficult to assume that anything else causes HIV/Aids.

You and the dissident Professor Peter Duesberg are jointly designing one of these projects. If the study finds that all people with the symptoms of Aids are infected with HIV, then what will the Aids dissidents say?
Duesberg has said that if he found that he would "shut up". That was the reason I took him on. I'm confident. I have no doubt about the current scientific evidence. I have every confidence that the HIV antibody test has now become so specific that we don't get many false positives. And if you take that with the identification of the virus by DNA techniques, there will be an abundance of correlative results. That will allow him to shut up.

But his record on this isn't good. He keeps shifting the goalposts.
Yes, he's like a chameleon or a mirage. But this is an issue that South Africans should take seriously. It is important that when you tell someone that they have an Aids-related condition that they can be confident that you have made the right diagnosis. So these projects are not taking us off the track. The other important project that we discussed concerns getting the total picture of how many people suffer from Aids every year. We don't have a national registry in this country of Aids sufferers. We have statistics at Baragwanath or Johannesburg General. We do not have the total picture as we do with TB, for example, which is a notifiable disease.

There was a controversy about making Aids notifiable last year.
We need to move beyond that. People in America are able to take policy decisions because every week the Centers for Disease Control is able to state whether the incidence of this or that disease or is going up, flattening or going down.

But shouldn't the statistics be about rates of HIV infection, not just the syndrome itself?
Well, we need figures for the syndrome too because we keep on telling the world that we have an Aids epidemic. We need to have figures annually from everywhere. We might find that at Baragwanath Hospital in Gauteng now the figures show infection rates are going down and maybe they are going up in the Northern Province. We could then ask - what have they been doing at Baragwanath that is not happening in the Northern Province? It may involve a centralised registering process as we have for TB or typhoid.

You have been put in an extraordinary situation. As the president of South Africa's Medical Research Council, you are being required by President Mbeki to defend the universal scientific orthodoxy against the opinions of a tiny minority.
I don't regard it as a problem. I regard it as a challenge. It is important that if I believe my hypothesis is right to allow it to be tested in whatever way. It is so important that we accept that people be allowed to continue to challenge this hypothesis. If we don't allow them to do so and simply say, look, it's all over, we are perceived either as being anti-science, or as selfish scientists who are only interested in our own cause. In a country where there is rampant ignorance and denial it is crucial to be pursuing alternative ideas - even if there is zero chance that you are wrong. So, by refusing to get involved in this process, instead of improving the strategies of the government, you would be hampering them. People would say, "Well, why should we wear condoms when these scientists are not even trying to explore alternative ideas?" In South Africa, to be accommodating and to allow the hypothesis to be tested is a way of gaining more support. And also Duesberg can no longer go and stand on top of a mountain and say, "I'm being treated as a leper." From both perspectives, this is actually a better way of going forward.

How did the process get this far? Don't you think it should have been stopped a lot earlier?
Yes, I agree with you. As you know, my own view is that this process should never have been public. I am a scientist. I have been convinced by the evidence. There are politicians who are facing major policy changes and want to explore all possibilities. Indeed, I have to confess the president did consult me early in this matter. I told him what I've always told him. But the president felt it was necessary to consult these other people to see whether together we could resolve these differences. And I agreed to participate.

Doesn't this story, and a number of other recent events, indicate that the government is uncomfortable with criticism?
I do sense that quite a bit. There is an element of intolerance of criticism.

How can channels of communication with the government be improved?
My own understanding is that South African leaders get better advice confidentially rather than publicly. You can achieve a lot more by writing to a minister than by writing an article. Civil society has to operate in that kind of way. Unfortunately, Western civil society makes its pronouncements publicly. African leadership understands advice given confidentially, behind the scenes. That is a fundamental difference. If I wanted to get something through to Nelson Mandela or to President Mbeki, it is much easier for me to make an arrangement to see either of them and discuss it thoroughly. The moment you start going public, it opens up a lot of other things that relate to history that are really unpleasant. People begin to stand their ground on the basis of many factors that get conflated with the issue.

Surely in a healthy democracy you need to have some dirty linen washed in public as well?
I don't think there is a problem with that. I'm not saying that at the end of the day you may not end up disagreeing in public. But that is not the first, reflexive reaction in an African society. My son or daughter doesn't criticise me to the neighbours before he or she talks to me. We have a very different kind of public debate. Once something goes public everyone immediately resorts to the history - "We have been oppressed", "This is another form of racism", and so forth. It soon looks obvious to the public. But I suspect that if the approach was to say, "Look, we have a point of difference here" in private, you may still end up disagreeing in public, but it would be handled very differently.

So democracy should be run much more on the model of a family?
That's what I'm saying to you. I don't want people to think the president never consulted me on this issue. He consulted me as early as January 10 this year. He could simply have gone public. He's the president. But he was respectful enough to say, "Look, Dr Makgoba, I've got a problem."

But he still wanted to explore the issue after you had spoken in private and at a certain point you took the decision to go very public?
It's not a problem, it's a challenge. He wanted to explore a comprehensive view. I said to him as an expert "It's not worth exploring."
I went public because I knew I wasn't saying something that would catch anybody by surprise. But we can still meet and talk because we've had a private exchange. This is a very important issue. I wish the Opposition could learn this. You don't criticise an African leader in public. Approach through a private discussion first. Most often you can resolve the differences in private. Look at the constitutional negotiations. How many years had there been private discussions between the government and the ANC? This approach yields substantive progress.

What about civil society? In the introduction to your book African Renaissance you write that black South Africans are partly the product of "creolisation" by western influences. Don't they probably want more openness in government than this private route can provide?
I don't think so. I know many people who are in the same position as I am. They don't stand on platforms and say "Thabo is wrong on this matter." Even at the level of civil institutions such as academia, if Mamphele Ramphela, as vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, has a problem with me she doesn't go public and say, "Hey, William this is absolute nonsense." She would call me and say, "Can we have a cup of tea? There is something I'm really concerned about." This is not something that is peculiar to politics. It is peculiar to the way Africans operate.

What would happen if the Democratic Party leader, Tony Leon, tried to approach President Mbeki in this way?
There would be no problem, I am almost a hundred per cent sure. If Tony Leon or Marthinus van Schalkwyk phoned President Mbeki at two o'clock in the morning, I'm sure this president would wake up, like he wakes up so many times and say, "Let's have an appointment and let's talk." There are no ground rules. You'd both discuss your concern, and both of you would be able to see where you're coming from.

You have spoken about the way in which all debates in South Africa tend to get racialised. Could you give some examples?
Well, for example, if Thabo Mbeki says that race is still a problem in South Africa the usual response that you get from the Opposition is that we have gone past this matter and that we should forget it. If Thabo Mbeki says that he wants to discuss the matter of poverty, people immediately link poverty with race and say "You are dragging us back into something, let's move forward." Similarly, if Tony Leon or Marthinus van Schalkwyk want to talk about liberal economics, it is not addressed simply as an idea or challenge. It is seen as a white man's idea. That racialises the whole debate rather than unpacking the concept. I'm not saying it happens only in one direction.

Black South Africans seem to feel that South Africa is still pervaded by racism. Whites tend to feel that racism has diminished somewhat since the days of the Group Areas Act.
You know why whites don't agree? It's because they want to define racism in their own terms, rather than in the terms of the Africans. They never want to listen to an African telling them what racism is. And you can't have a dominant sector that has practised racism defining it. They are like player and referee. They think they understand it better than Africans do. The perpetrators want to define racism in terms that suit them. White South Africans don't understand the psychological impact of racism. The pain lingers through several generations.

Sometimes it seems as if the accusation of racism is levelled by black people in almost any situation where a white doesn't let a black do exactly what he or she wants.
Well, yes. Anything left to one group has a tendency to be overdone. If we only allowed black people to define racism and its limits, it might be very difficult to tolerate. I'm not saying we shouldn't engage with that. But I think when you simply dismiss black definitions of racism you are doing society a disservice. In everyday life, South Africa is very racist. Even among liberals, there is a problem of their own socialisation. They don't appreciate the dimensions of the privileges they have enjoyed. I am not saying that there are no white people who have cured themselves of this illness. There are. And I would also agree with you that we should not move from one extreme to the other if we are trying to construct a new society.

So we need to reach a stable definition of racism?
Yes. We haven't reached that because we are always either dismissive of each other or tend to talk past each other rather than to each other.

What do you think about the idea that battles about race in South Africa are really battles between two sections of the middle class - white and black?
I am not a sociologist, or a historian, or a Marxist. In fact, I dislike Marx very much because he has misled so many people. I think there is no doubt that race and class are dominant issues. But before we move onto the class issue, the race matter is still more important. I'm not saying the two things don't mix. But you must understand that the so-called black middle class is the articulate blacks, the blacks who have been to school, that are able to argue this sort of thing. We mustn't confuse the messengers of black aspirations because they happen to be articulate and educated with the class that they belong to. My experience - and that of many members of the so-called black middle class that I know - convinces me that we are completely in touch with what Africans from all backgrounds think and want.

African identity is primary, then?
People forget that I'm an African who benefited a lot from western experiences. I respect those experiences to the point where they've changed my life. They have affected the way I think. They have affected the way I behave. But they have always been woven around a solid background of origins, of identity in Africa. To me, that is central. When I talk about the "creolising" of people, I really mean it. I belong to what you might call "transitionals". My identities are multiple and accommodating. If you look at how Thabo Mbeki defines an African you will see that these experiences and inheritances are all mixed. They are captured by consciousness, by history, by culture. These experiences enrich our Africanness. The African of three hundred years ago would have been different. The important question is how much you are prepared to allow some of the experiences of another civilisation to impact on your own culture.

You have said that one of the rudest things you can call a South African these days is a liberal. Why?
The thing that makes me really very, very sad is the fact that South African liberals have not changed. The Afrikaners have changed and keep changing. Liberals are like a scratched record, repeating themselves all the time, not moving with the times. People feel suspicious that we are dealing here with guys who are not really entrenched in Africa. They want to be with us, but not part of us.

Don't you think there is some use in the liberal tradition?
Yes. But those traditions don't have to be rammed down people's throats. Part of the reason that I am telling you that I am product of European experience is that the English in England never rammed things at me. When you visit England and see how far the English have moved from what they used to be, you suddenly realise that in South Africa you are dealing here with a bunch of colonialists - so-called liberals - who are maybe 30 or 40 years behind the times. And these are the values they think we should carry on with! I have met the true, authentic colonialists in England. They have moved on because they have seen a world that is globalising, a world that is creolising. And then you come here and you find dinosaurs.

You have written that liberalism can be a useful weapon against authoritarianism. Do you detect any authoritarian tendencies in the present government?
No, I don't think so. This is what we were talking about at the beginning. I perceive the South African government as becoming more African in its mannerisms and interpretation of the world. It wants that Africanness to permeate most of the institutions of civil society: the judiciary, higher education, the press. It is not against press freedom. I don't think that the Pan Africanist Congress or the Inkatha Freedom Party sees any problem with this. If you read the record, the IFP and the ANC are on good terms because they share an African identity that has evolved and is evolving. The DP seems not to understand - or even to want to understand.

Did you follow the HRC's hearings on racism in the media?
No. All I know is that I wrote the first article (Sunday Independent, September 14, 1997) saying that this whole question would have be dealt with by the HRC. Nobody seemed to believe me at the time, but my prediction came true - that the media was racist and that it would have to be settled by the HRC.

Do you find the newspapers personally offensive to read?
There are things that are obnoxious. There are things that are ridiculous and there are things that are laughable. There are a few things that are done well. On the whole nobody pays attention to real analysis. Let's take the Aids issue. We know that this debate was taking place 10 years ago. It was there in the media of the world. Why did the media people here not go to the library and see that we are not dealing with something new here? They failed to understand that.

In general, the tone of the media reflects that of the racially divided society. It communicates the ethos of a disparate power relation between the powerless and the powerful. It is dominated by powerful white people. I have to say that some of the black people in the media are just aping what the whites are saying. Sometimes in reverse, but sometimes they become useful tools for their master's voice. They would dispute that, but I have to speak as a reader. The powerful white people in the media don't realise that their power over black people ensures that they actually sometimes employ black people who are an imitation of them - a "house nigger".

How can you tell whether a black journalist is a "coconut" or whether he or she has a principled objection to some government policy?
You can tell from the way the message is carried. The summation of the message. I'll give you an example. You read what the Star columnist Mondli Makhanya writes. This is a young man who has his own mind, his own interpretation and that interpretation is always spot on with what the black majority thinks. It is the same with Kaiser Nyatsumba, editor of the Daily News. I'm not saying that sometimes they don't go overboard, but you can tell that Kaiser Nyatsumba is the same kind of guy, Jon Qwelane is the same kind of guy. But I could also list a number of people that I read whose columns are just wishy-washy.

Could an African journalist disagree with the opinion of the African majority in an acceptable way?
Jon Qwelane has done that many times. It's the way he articulates and makes his argument. It's not simply the fact that you disagree. Many people perceive that I disagree with Thabo Mbeki on this matter of Aids. We are both black people. People listen to what we say and they can see that we are arguing our points from principle and using logical arguments. The reader is able to follow debates that are logical, evidence-based, are not parochial or full of personal attacks. That, to me, makes an exciting debate. None of us can be regarded as "coconuts".

What will a fully achieved African democracy in South Africa look like?
We have a saying, "the chief is the chief through the people." Go and visit traditional chiefs and see how democratic they are, how they practise a system of governance that is very different from what you see in the West. There is no dictatorship. Traditional chiefs have systems of governance that should make so-called white liberals appreciate how democratic they really are. In traditional African culture, being a chief involved a lot consultation with the lekgotla (council of elders). Chiefs ruled in a spirit of ubuntu, of realising that we are only human through each other. Japan has a parliament, India has a parliament, but these are not Western parliaments. People develop systems of governance that move with the times but that are rooted in a certain identity and culture that allows them to enrich the diversity of humanity.

What is your vision for the future of the South African white community in general?
The question we keep coming back to is that following 350 years of colonialism and domination we have been taught and made to accept the other person's side. When is this other person going to accept our side, now that we are trying to be equitable, rather than tell us "I have civilised you, I have taught you over 300 years. You must be like me."?

Many white people have work friends who are black, but they never go to their homes. They invite you to their home - and you are expected to come. There is no reciprocity. There is not even an attempt to understand what is going on. It's ridiculous. It's sad. Why are there no white people going to live in Soweto? How many white Johannesburgers have friends that they could go and visit in Soweto? You will never see them walking there with friends, going to a shebeen. If they did they would begin to understand people in a very different way, rather than being frightened.

I do sincerely hope and believe that as a black African I would reach a point where I am convinced that there are whites who are committed and are playing a constructive role in Africa. I want this belief to be general rather than to be located in the minds of a few. I cannot see us constructing a non-racial, non-sexist, equitable society in which blacks become the new dictators or oppressors. That is not my ideal of what the liberation struggle was for. I hope many people can see that. The whole excitement about South Africa is the fact that we have accepted in principle, and constitutionally, that we are going to create a new society in which all of us are going to play a meaningful role. Part of that implies accommodating each other in a wide range of ways.