South Africa at Stake

Empowered by governments, religious ideology is shaping the aids industry in harmful ways.
Left Field by Patricia Nell Warren

Scanning headlines, I saw the CDC announcement that South Africa is now “a victim of its ARV treatment success.” This year S.A. hoped to treat eighty percent of its 1 million HIV-positive citizens. By 2024, the S.A. government says, it will need $4 billion for the purchase of cheap generic ARVs made available by PEPFAR and World Bank partnerships. But the extra $120 million promised by President Obama turns out to be a one-time deal, not an annual increase. So the S.A. government aims to counteract the shortfall by more prevention. Translation: If the faith-based NGOs now swarming South Africa have their way, “prevention” will mean more fidelity/abstinence-till-marriage policy.

CDC seems to be overlooking the ideological trends jarring S.A. since apartheid ended in 1994. Despite some striking achievements, the new Republic of South Africa now has economic troubles, a high jobless rate, and a high HIV-infection rate as well. Most important—extremist missionaries are making South Africa their biggest target on the continent, looking to re-establish state religion there. Translation is needed—to reveal what missionaries really mean when they talk about “prevention.”

Christianity first came to southern Africa during the colonial era. Shortly after 1900, independent black African churches—notably Shembe and Zionist denominations—sprang up across South Africa. Today the S.A. church establishment has a few egalitarian figures like Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, who speaks out on human rights for all. But the new wave of foreign missionaries are not too interested in human rights. Some take PEPFAR funds, while others don’t. But they all take positions on “prevention.”

Best known is Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Warren’s wife, Kay, is director of Saddleback’s HIV/AIDS Initiative. The Warrens’ prevention program is said not to take PEPFAR funds; it does okay the use of condoms, but only by married couples. Saddleback first stepped into AIDS politics in 2006 by holding a Global Summit on AIDS and the Church in California. Among the speakers was then-Senator Barack Obama. Given his old ties to the Warrens, it’s not surprising that President Obama has okayed fifty percent of PEPFAR money going to abstinence-only programs abroad.

Another foreign face in S.A. is controversial TV evangelist Benny Hinn, who scoops up every AIDS orphan possible. Ten percent of PEPFAR monies goes to orphans and vulnerable children. Translation: These kids are an abundant new source of converts.

The biggest push for “abstinence-only” is coming from missionaries who are linked to the New Apostolic Reformation. NAR is an international Protestant evangelical movement aimed at forging a global empire whose so-called “apostles” will rule nations “in the name of Jesus.” In Africa, the NAR is already setting up a chain of one-party governments (example: Uganda) whose heads of state (like Uganda’s dictator, Museveni) are obedient to NAR dogma. HIV/AIDS prevention gives these “apostles” the opening to legislate against sexual “immorality” among Africans, including sex work and homosexuality.

Indeed, the hard-liner Uganda government says it intends to levy the death penalty in certain cases of HIV infection.

South Africa is an alluring target for the NAR—not only because of its enormous influence in Africa but also because the NAR can manipulate ongoing struggles over the role of religion in S.A. government. When apartheid was first established in 1948 by the ruling white Afrikaner minority, South Africa’s state church used Old Testament passages about “the children of Ham” as their basis for oppressing black Africans. As a result, the republic’s new constitution did away with state religion. Among the liberation movement’s anti-Bible figures was Thabo Mbeki, who became the new Republic’s second president in 1999.

Church conservatives decried President Mbeki’s public criticism of the Bible’s racist passages and what they viewed as his “black Marxism.” They were horrified at Mbeki’s support of the African Renaissance movement, which glorifies pre-colonial civilizations like ancient Egypt and calls for new African cultural achievement. To missionaries, this meant a return to what they see as “heathen and satanic” practices. Mbeki also infuriated the international AIDS industry because he viewed it as an oppressive construct of white foreigners. He expressed concerns over the toxicity of foreign-made ARVs like AZT and nevirapine, and opposed their use in public hospitals. He also predicted that ARV treatment would be colossally expensive for developing countries. Instead, he preferred to aim for a vaccine. In 1999 the S.A. Cabinet (of which Mbeki was a member) launched its South Africa AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI).

Reacting with outrage, the AIDS establishment worked to hammer South Africa into pharmaceutical submission. In 2003, Mbeki buckled and agreed to allow drug distribution. Today Jacob Zuma, the president who replaced Mbeki in 2008, endears himself to the AIDS bosses by flinging the doors open to ARVs. More important, Zuma endears himself to the church lobby by courting them during his current campaign for re-election. Earlier this year, when he called for debate on a “moral code” for South Africa, church leaders hailed his move—conveniently overlooking the fact that Zuma’s private life has been shaded with sexual controversy. According to the South African evangelical blog, “Zuma was the best possible candidate to lead South Africa into transformation.” Translation: Zuma’s policies are seen as an opportunity to establish a Bible-based S.A. regime as controllable as Uganda has been.

Indeed, in 2008, the same year that Mbeki fell from power, various church groups came together to launch a National Initiative for Reformation of South Africa (NIRSA). About ending the AIDS pandemic, NIRSA stated, “We resolve to hold faithfulness in marriage and sexual abstinence before marriage as the only effective way.” No mention of ARVs or condoms anywhere there.

Typical of U.S.-based groups is the South African Evangelistic Mission, whose website mentions their HIV/AIDS work. Their S.A. national office is located in Durban but they tour remote rural areas, doing the type of tent revivals that are so familiar in the U.S. Key to their AIDS work is what NAR practitioners call “spiritual warfare against the territorial spirits and strongholds of the area.” According to this key NAR belief, powerful demons can possess everything from an individual to a neighborhood, even an entire city. The demons must be cast out by “spiritual warfare”—which ranges from violent exorcisms to draconian laws like the one pending in Uganda. Translation: Sick South Africans may not get their ARVs unless they agree to be objects of “spiritual warfare.”

Another key NAR belief is “miraculous cures of AIDS.” In a recent interview with commentator Bill Berkowitz, political researcher Rachel Tabachnick talked about NAR claims that “there have been thousands of cases of miraculous curing of AIDS in Uganda.” She said, “Medical leaders are warning that claims of miraculous healing are interfering with the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Since altering their AIDS programs to abstinence-only programming promoted by U.S. evangelicals, Uganda has had an increase, not decrease of new AIDS cases.” Similar claims of “miraculous healings” are made in South Africa. I wonder how many faith-based groups are taking PEPFAR funding only to put it towards “miraculous cures” instead of ARVs.

South Africa would still be a prime candidate for that AIDS vaccine that Mbeki wanted. But some conservative Christians actually oppose vaccination for diseases that are spread via sexual contact. They argue that the threat of illness and death should be kept in place in order to deter risky sexual contact. Translation: Vaccines will not be as Biblically and economically productive as ARVs. “Abstinence-only” guarantees endless new rounds of converts…and billions of dollars in drug sales.

Further reading:

History of HIV and AIDS in South Africa:

South African vaccine testing:

Thabo Mbeki and the African Renaissance:

Current PEPFAR parameters:

Consequences of faith-based lobbying in PEPFAR policy:

Author of fiction bestsellers and provocative commentary, Patricia Nell Warren has her writings archived at Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

October 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.