Lies, damned lies and Dr Rath

by Terry Bell
Inside Labour, 16 March 2006

There are lies, damned lies and, in the context of the past week, then there is Dr Matthias Rath and his foundation. The controversial vitamin pedlar last week contended that high court judges had affirmed that the government was being forced "to spread disease and death among the people of South Africa".

This statement alone has raised to boiling point the ire not only of AIDS activists, but also the trade union movement and much of the legal profession.

Because the judges in the matter, Desai, Louw and Moosa, said nothing of the sort. In a ruling following an action brought by the AIDS campaigning group, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) they affirmed Rath's right to freedom of expression, but forbade him or his foundation from continuing to claim that the TAC was funded by or a front for the drug companies.

It is a carefully reasoned judgement of 16 pages it treads the line between freedom of expression -- including the right to publish and speak untruths -- and the sort of lie which damages the reputation of individuals and the functioning of organisations.

The TAC had complained that it was defamed by being labelled an effective front for the drug companies. This included the allegation that it paid protesters to attend its demonstrations.

The judges found that few people could take seriously the "rent a crowd" allegation, but that such allegations were "part and parcel of political activity in this country". In other words, they continue to be made, by various groups, but have little impact since they are basically unbelievable.

Rath's public response to the judgement was swift. In the name of the Dr Rath Health Foundation Africa, thousands of copies of a free publication, "You Can!" were distributed in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township last Friday.

You Can! alleges that the TAC is an "unscrupulous and largely foreign funded organisation" whose business is "spreading disease and death among the people".

Completely ignoring the court order, the publication repeats the allegation that the TAC functions on behalf of the pharmaceutical companies, claiming "TAC organises rented crowds for the drug industry".

"This is probably in contempt of the court order, but it is a narrow base," says a leading lawyer.

However, the trade union federations consider that Rath's response is both dangerous as well as being contemptuous of the truth. They have issued a call to him and his foundation to "refrain from making unfounded and dangerous statements".

"As things stand Rath and his foundation are making a mockery of the courts and are spreading the sort of misinformation that harms mainly working class people. It has to stop," says Cosatu Western Cape regional secretary, Tony Ehrenreich.

Federation of Unions (Fedusa) acting general secretary, Dennis George agrees. "And we welcome the judgement because it affirms that the TAC is in no way connected with the drug companies," he says.

National Council of Unions (Nactu) health and safety co-ordinator Chaka Leepo, sums up the general position: "We in the unions pledge our support to the roll-out of scientifically proven medication where and when necessary. and we oppose those who peddle untested nostrums on a pseudo scientific basis."

This is the position taken by the TAC which will not take the latest Rath attack to court. "It is clearly an attempt to get us tied up in court cases," says TAC national manager Nathan Geffen.

The TAC also finds laughable the repeated allegation that its underlying purpose is "creating political unrest and destabilising democracy in South Africa".

Besides, the campaigning group has one other case pending against Rath for carrying out "unauthorised clinical trials, distributing unregistered medicines and making false claims" for his treatments.

The government, represented by health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, is listed as a co-respondent for failing to take action against Rath for activities which Professor Lionel Opie of the University of Cape Town medical school has characterised as "medically going back to the Dark Ages".

"That case may finally clear up the issue, but we should not wait for that. We have to speak out now and give whatever support we can to those, such as the TAC, who are dealing responsibly with perhaps the greatest health crisis we have ever faced," says Ehrenreich.

Adds Leepo: "Perhaps a persona non grata judgement from the state would be the best remedy."

Terry Bell is a South African journalist who specialises in labour issues.