Sunday Times (Johannesburg) - February 14, 2012
Does celebrity involvement in campaigns raise awareness or
distort the message - or, worse still compromise the cause?
Whether the campaign is about HIV/Aids awareness, teenage
pregnancies, drug abuse or domestic violence, do celebrities add
In 2007, Halle Berry claimed that she had cured herself of type1
diabetes by changing her diet.
Berry declared: "I've managed to wean myself off insulin, so now
I'd like to put myself in the type2 category."
Doctors were outraged by her claims and they quickly denounced
her statements in blogs, TV interviews and newspaper articles.
The doctors said that, if Berry were truly a type 1 diabetic, it
would be suicide for her to stop taking insulin. They suggested
that the 45-year-old Oscar-winning actress was either "mistaken,
misinformed or misdiagnosed, and probably always had type2, which
tends to affect people later in life and can, in some cases, be
overcome with a change in diet".
One doctor said: "When someone really has type1, it means their
immune system has destroyed the insulin-producing part of the
pancreas. In that case, there is no way to wean yourself off
Six weeks ago, on World Aids Day, actress Lesego Motsepe
announced that she is HIV-positive.
Motsepe, who played the role of Lettie Matabane in the SABC3
soapie Isidingo, disclosed her status on a breakfast radio show,
saying she has been living with HIV for 13 years.
Because she had been working as an Aids ambassador for years -
using puppets to educate children about the virus - she had not
been shocked when she found out that she had been infected. Her
training had armed her with valuable information that enabled her
to live a healthy life, she said.
A strong woman with a positive attitude, Motsepe told listeners
that, in October 2010, when she was "close to death's door" with
a CD4 count of 99, she had changed the way she lived. She started
taking antiretrovirals and made the changes to her lifestyle
needed to strengthen her health.
Motsepe, who said she used to drink a lot, stopped and switched
to a healthy diet.
Then, on Friday, on the TV talkshow 3Talk, Motsepe told a
dumbstruck Noleen Maholwana-Sangqu that she had stopped taking
She had "weaned herself off ARVs", against her doctor's advice,
because she couldn't bear the thought of taking pills every day
for the rest of her life, Motsepe said.
Maholwana-Sangqu looked stupefied as Motsepe told her that she
was following a holistic regimen that includes meditation, and
the beetroot and garlic diet advocated by former health minister
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. She said the minister had been "onto
something " and that there were alternatives to ARVs.
Motsepe, who told us that she is an HIV/Aids ambassador, said she
would dictate the terms under which the virus lived in her body -
it would not dictate to her.
I asked Motsepe yesterday if she had not sent out the wrong
message about ARVs? Whom is she representing as an ambassador;
what is their position on ARVs?
What does she think the role of an HIV/Aids ambassador is in
South Africa, a country with one of the largest number of HIV
infections and where millions have died because they didn't have
access to ARVs, and where millions more will die because they
default on their ARV treatment? I asked her how someone who is
HIV-positive and regards her as a role model should interpret
what she said about ARVs on national TV?
She sent me a simple e-mail: "I have decided that I will not be
taking any interviews or giving interviews for a while. Please
respect my decision."
I respected her decision.
She later changed her mind, sending me the following:
"What I am interested in having is a new conversation of
authority and victory over HIV/Aids, not a fear-based debate on
ARVs. The people living with the virus in their blood are best
positioned to lead this conversation and tip the scale rather
than those making a living out of its existence.
"There is a need for a holistic approach in tackling the pandemic
as opposed to a hopeless approach, with drugs being seen as a
"We can take ARVs and still engage in unprotected sex; we can
take them on empty stomachs and souls and be plunged deeper into
pain and suffering; or we can see them as part of a holistic
solution and partner in discovering alternative and additional
ways of conquering the virus.
"I call on churches, healers, teachers, doctors, scientists, the
affected and infected to partner rather than find divisions
through debates that will only cause further confusion in the
minds of young people who observe and seek direction on how to
live an HIV-free lifestyle."
English journalist and author Peter Stanford, who is highly
sceptical about celebrity ambassadors, has asked: What happens
when the celebrity goes off the message? Do these celebrities
know the brief - and are they able to articulate the complex
issues involved in the charities, campaigns they are involved in?
What do we do then?
I say, we stay on the message - and that message is that you
cannot just stop taking ARVs when you feel better.
Health Department spokesman Fidel Hadebe said: "We don't want to
go back to the past. We are still paying the price for that past
of beetroot and garlic. We would like to appeal to the public,
especially those who are on ARVs, not to be misled by
"We are working hard to ensure that those who need ARVs have
access to them."