South Africa was the country that was supposed to show the rest of Africa the way. With the triumph of the anti-Apartheid struggle, and with the advantages of resources, infrastructure, and popular government, South Africa was best positioned to overcome the continent’s triple plagues of impoverishment, civil war, and despotic rule. Then came HIV/AIDS.
Demonstrators protest against the South African government’s AIDS policies and the high price of antiretroviral drugs. Credit: Rob Oakley.
As powerfully revealed in State of Denial, many high ranking members in the popularly elected government — sincere heirs to Nelson Mandela — don’t believe the HIV virus causes AIDS. This single decision to doubt the link has turned a crisis into a catastrophe.
With five million people infected and nearly two thousand new infections occurring daily, South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world.
The film takes viewers into the lives of people struggling to survive with HIV in the face of social stigma, a severe lack of access to lifesaving treatments, and their president Thabo Mbeki’s controversial stance on the connection between HIV and AIDS. A film of quiet outrage, “State of Denial” weaves the personal with the political in an uplifting portrait of ordinary people struggling to survive.
Filmed over two tumultuous years when, among other events, South Africa hosted a world conference on AIDS, the film takes measure of all sides in the debate over the South African government’s health policies. South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang defends President Mbeki’s views in a series of interviews that provide a behind-the-scenes look at the ideas and policies of the South African government. In news footage Mbeki presents his belief that poverty and malnutrition are at the heart of the disease, and that antiretroviral medication is harmful rather than helpful.
Whether Mbeki’s opinions arise from agreement with the dissident views of a few Western scientists, or an attempt to avoid costs the government feels it can ill afford, is not known. What is clear to the vast majority of doctors and AIDS specialists is that the government’s policies are leading to a public-health catastrophe. They also leave South Africans with no official defender against the business practices of a few large international pharmaceutical companies.
Producer/director Elaine Epstein, a native South African who has worked extensively in AIDS and public health, offers a unique insider’s view of the complex forces driving the disease’s spread — and the debate around it — in South Africa. State of Denial gives moving testimony to the harsh realities of the AIDS epidemic, global healthcare inequities, and the political and economic interests that are denying millions of people around the world access to life-saving therapies.