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25 October 2014 13:46 (South Africa)
Opinionista Rebecca Hodes

Helen Zille and the misuse of metaphor

  • Rebecca Hodes
In her tirade against the “Aids Gestapo”, DA leader Helen Zille has misunderstood the role of race in recent debates about HIV infection in South Africa. And that's even before we consider how she has misapplied the Gestapo metaphor itself, thereby rendering her argument valueless.

Lest I be accused of knee-jerk anti-DA sentiment, I’d like to begin this column by stating that I have immense respect for Helen Zille. Yes, Zille made some errors in her tenure as leader of the opposition, but I have never doubted her commitment to democracy in South Africa. Unlike the present numbers of cohorts of cronies in government, particularly at provincial levels, it is clear that Zille isn’t in politics for the money or connections. And she has weathered abuse from so many opponents, of such severity, that it is testament to her strength of character, and her unshakeable will for South Africa to succeed, that she has retained her position as leader of the DA.

This being said, Zille has made a number of errors of late. The most recent in this series of political missteps is her publication of a statement in the DA forums entitled “Mandela’s leadership long forgotten in Aids debate”. There are a number of serious problems with the statement, but I shall focus on just two: Zille’s misuse of metaphor, and her misunderstanding of the role of race in recent debates about HIV infection in South Africa.

In the article, Zille rails against a group of people “who actually have much in common with religious fanatics or fascists... (T)hey hunt in a vicious pack to prevent anyone from questioning their assumptions. Slacktivists is too gentle a word to describe them. They are more like an Aids Gestapo.”

Who are these wolfish folk, one wonders? Are they the ranks of Treatment Action Campaign activists who marched to the courts and the clinics, demanding public access to life-saving antiretroviral treatment? Are they the activists who occupied the South African stand at the Aids Conference in 2006, to draw international attention to the travesty of government’s obstruction of treatment? Or are they the leaders of the HIV treatment-access movement? It was this last possibility that tickled me the most, as I pictured the leaders of TAC and the Aids Law Project prowling the picket lines, wearing vampire teeth and charging towards the gates of parliament. Vivid, isn’t it, the image of Mark Heywood and Vuyiseka Dubula as zombies, tearing up the statue of Smuts?

Sadly for us, Zille doesn’t fulminate on the ranks of the “Aids Gestapo”, but names only one alleged henchman: Dr Francois Venter, one of the leaders of the HIV Clinicians Society of Southern Africa, and a clinician and researcher. For some time, Venter been engaged in a debate among other public-health specialists regarding the reasons for South Africa’s high HIV prevalence. As Zille mentions, Venter has posited the possibility that there may be a genetic or environmental factor that makes South Africans more susceptible to HIV infection. Zille criticises Venter for this argument, stating that it is “the ultimate cop-out”, and going further still to accuse Venter of “enforcing denialism”. I’m sure he’ll be amazed at this last accusation, that’s if he has time to register it between his work at the Reproductive Health Research Unit, editing a journal for HIV clinicians, and treating people with HIV at a public clinic in Johannesburg.

I’m not a scientist, and I have only a dim grasp of the complexities of HIV replication. That’s why I leave it to the experts, like Venter, to keep me updated with the latest scientific thinking on the virus, and to translate this into laymen’s terms. This is precisely what Venter was doing when he wrote the article that Zille is railing against, explaining that “There is accumulating evidence that people in our region are more vulnerable to HIV per sex act than our European, Asian or American counterparts...”

It is a scientific fact that certain groups of people have a greater genetic predisposition to some diseases than do others. To say that Jews are more likely to develop Tay-Sachs disease is not anti-Semitic. By the same token, Venter’s suggestion that there may be a genetic or environmental predisposition to HIV for people in South Africa is not to demonise one group, nor to negate their responsibility for safe sex and behaviour change. Rather, in Venter’s case, it is to pose a scientific hypothesis for high rates of HIV prevalence in South Africa, and to call for further research to determine the veracity or falsity of this.

This brings me to Zille’s next misuse of metaphor in article: her use of the phrase “AIDS Gestapo”.

As with slavery, the Holocaust occupies a specific place in the public imagination, symbolic of oppression and brutality. The iconography of the Holocaust – the yellow Star of David Jews were made to wear on their concentration camp uniforms, the mass graves of Dachau – are etched into our collective consciousness, as are terms like “gas chamber”, “swastika” and “Gestapo”. Because of both the significance and ubiquity of the Holocaust imagery and rhetoric, these have misappropriated by interest groups in order to mobilise support for a particular cause, as in the description by anti-choice activists in the US of abortion as the “America’s Holocaust”. It is because of the misappropriation and misapplication of Holocaust rhetoric that many Jews speak of the “Shoah” rather than the Holocaust, to refer specifically to the mass murder of Jews in Europe during the Second World War, acknowledging that the word “holocaust” may have a more universal application.

There may well be instances in which comparison between appalling events in history is justified. I am not arguing that the Holocaust was the “worst” event in history, or that the suffering of the Jews was greater than, say, the victims of the genocides orchestrated by Stalin, Pol Pot and Nahimana. But I am arguing for caution and discernment in the application of historical terms, the meaning of which derives from a specific event or process. If we misuse terms that arise from historical instances that stand for grievous injustice, we cheapen their meaning, deaden public response, and disrespect the memories of the victims. Zille’s use of the term “Gestapo” to refer to a group of people supposedly working within the field of HIV research and advocacy is one such example of this misapplication.

There may be some awful people who work within the fields of HIV research and advocacy, but they are not part of a secret, military police, the aim of which is to torture and murder people. Zille’s comparison promotes a lack of understanding about the true role of the Gestapo, the extraordinary injustice of its activities, and the suffering of its victims. Instead of adding any weight to her argument, Zille’s misuse of metaphor renders it valueless. What is more, she slides into the realm of conspiracy theories when she poses the question: “Did the Aids Gestapo silence Mandela?”

Casting aspersions on scientists, mining history for lurid comparisons, and trumping up charges against Aids activists – doesn’t Zille realise that she sounds just like former president Thabo Mbeki? Zille must resist the urge of emotive metaphorical flourishes in future public statements, and she must withdraw from this debate before she does further damage to her political and public credibility.


Rebecca Hodes is a medical historian who works at the University of Cape Town.

  • Rebecca Hodes

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