During the height of the Covid pandemic, there was one outstanding leader holding political office in South Africa: Western Cape Premier Alan Winde. His messages were clear and science-based. He supported the provincial health department’s initiatives which involved making sure hospitals had the capacity to deal with the surges in Covid cases.
Winde’s leadership is one of the reasons why the Western Cape led the way with the speed of its vaccine rollout and, as importantly, the quality of the data it produced, which showed how effective the vaccine rollout was.
So it’s a great pity that Winde’s work, which one would think the DA leadership would be proud of, is being undermined by several of the party’s top people, including John Steenhuisen, Helen Zille and, most of all, Beverley Schäfer. They have been cosying up to Dr Aseem Malhotra, a prominent anti-vaxxer from the UK who has been touring South Africa and causing confusion here, spreading misleading information.
According to News24, the anti-vaxxer Malhotra was invited by Schäfer to present at the Western Cape legislature’s auditorium on 15 March. He has been photographed one-on-one with Steenhuisen, and is in a video with Zille. A transcript of the conversation between them was placed on Twitter.
Winde, again to his credit, reacted appropriately: “I hope that how this event happened will be investigated,” he told News24. “The international scientific evidence clearly shows that Covid-19 vaccines are the best tools to manage the virus and have saved and continue to save lives.”
I don’t wish to deal with the numerous misleading claims made by the British anti-vaxxer. GroundUp has several times previously presented the overwhelming evidence from the Western Cape that Covid vaccines have saved many lives. Here is a graph from Our World in Data that screams: “The anti-vaxxer from England talks nonsense.”
One of our reporters asked Steenhuisen to explain why he met with this particular anti-vaxxer. Steenhuisen responded with a long exposition of liberalism. He wrote: “As a leader and a legislator, I regularly meet with people with different views and opinions. This traverses a number of topics and issues from the legalisation of rhino horn, the death penalty, to the situation in the Middle East. I am always available to listen to the views and opinions of others, even when these are contrary to mine.”
This is at best naive. For one thing, the demands for meetings with Steenhuisen must far exceed his available time. More importantly, every formal meeting a senior political leader has with someone sends a message to the public; not necessarily that you agree with the person but that you consider their views or position in society sufficiently important to be worth your time. By meeting with the anti-vaxxer Malhotra, Steenhuisen has disrespected the health workers across the country, and especially the medical leaders in the battle against Covid. It was entirely unnecessary.
At least Steenhuisen reaffirmed his support for Covid vaccines, but Schäfer, who is the Deputy Speaker in the Western Cape legislature, continues to publicly express misinformation about vaccinations on her Twitter account. One would think this violates DA policy. People have been disciplined in the DA for far less.
Anti-vaccination nonsense was virtually absent from the South African discourse before Covid. It is a terrible idea imported mostly from American and European charlatans. Unfortunately, not only bad ideas, but measles also crosses borders. We are in the midst of a measles outbreak, in part because not enough people are vaccinated against this disease. This is a time when all major political parties should be united in promoting vaccination unequivocally.
Our questions to John Steenhuisen and his full response
Questions: The Western Cape led the way in the vaccine rollout, and has a proud history of fighting the AIDS denialism peddled by former President Thabo Mbeki.
Now the Deputy Speaker of the Western Cape Provincial Legislature, Beverley Schäfer, is actively campaigning against vaccines (check her Twitter timeline) and has invited a notorious antivaxxer Dr Aseem Malhotra to “address Parliament”. Malhotra has also met with you and Helen Zille.
What was the reason for meeting with Malhotra, whose promotion of life-endangering pseudoscience undermines the DA government’s own vaccine rollout achievements in the Western Cape?
Is this consistent with DA health policy?
Who invited you to meet with Malhotra?
As a leader and a legislator, I regularly meet with people with different views and opinions. This traverses a number of topics and issues from the legalisation of rhino horn, the death penalty, to the situation in the Middle East. I am always available to listen to the views and opinions of others, even when these are contrary to mine.
As a public representative and a policy maker of a broad voter base, I am required to meet with people with wide and divergent views. I welcome this as it enables me to be better informed when coming to my own conclusions on matters.
I am a liberal, and unashamedly so this is defined by the Oxford dictionary as:
Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.
Relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.
A 20-minute exchange of views with somebody who has a different opinion to mine cannot be an endorsement of, or alignment with their views. This would be as absurd as suggesting that because a journalist has interviewed somebody in crafting their story, they have now aligned themselves to the view that has been shared with them.
I have been extremely public in my support for vaccines, including fighting for their introduction and their rollout, and I have publicly received both shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. I have also encouraged other citizens to do so on multiple occasions. This is matter of wide public record.
I will continue to meet with people who have divergent views and engage with all sides of a debate because I feel that that is what an effective leader and legislator must do in determining his/her own position forward. I believe stronger and more sound decisions emanate from having a full view of all sides of any debate. I fundamentally reject the cancel culture that has set in where the views and opinions of others are simply cancelled or de-platformed.”
Published originally on GroundUp | By Nathan Geffen