Linda-Gail Bekker - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

What does winning the prize mean to you?
I'm overwhelmed. I think one of the aspects of working here in southern Africa is that you get on with the job -- you get lost in the day-to-day work, so when somebody stops and acknowledges you, it's a very pleasant surprise. It is also humbling because I know a lot of people in this part of the world doing great stuff, and I'm just one of them. Having said that, I'm very much enjoying my 15 minutes of fame - I'm not about to give it up!

What drew you to working in this field in the first place?
I was born in Zimbabwe, and came to UCT [the University of Cape Town] to do my medical degree because it was the Big Smoke. It was the late 1980s, and the HIV epidemic was just breaking for us. I remember a strong sense of frustration, anxiety, impotence -- I didn't fully understand what was going on, and wanted to know more. I went on to do my PhD in host immunology, which I am still fascinated by, but as time has gone on, I have used the laboratory side of my studies less, and I've been drawn to the hands-on side of things. I often say to people I'm really a closet social worker these days.

The HIV epidemic, together with the TB epidemic, is incredibly all-encompassing. One has to work in the community, and then one meets all the difficulties of our recently urbanised, socio-economically disadvantaged communities. And so one gets more and more caught up in community development. It has really become a most incredible vocation, where every single day of my life is different. There's just so much to do and the need is so huge. It's also incredibly exciting, as there's so much to learn. We haven't cracked it by a long shot -- there's still a tonne to do - but it doesn't feel like work, it feels like fun. I'm so lucky to get paid to do it.

What does the work involve? What's the plan?
In this part of the world, children are becoming infected with TB in huge numbers very early on. They don't get the disease immediately, but they become infected (much like it was in the pre-antibiotic era in your country). When you superimpose the HIV epidemic on top of that, you speed up the progress of the illness -- so the TB infection becomes [the] TB disease in young adulthood, because of their immune deficiency. We have to think of TB and HIV together almost as a new disease. That requires us to go back to fundamentals, but also to think outside the box. What will be the new interventions on top of the tried and tested ones, which seem to be insufficient at the moment? What else could we be doing?

It's said you marry science and humanity.
HIV and TB are just so much a part of our lives. A good part of our workforce live openly with HIV. They come to work and we look after them, but they also take their antiretrovirals. I have had TB and had to take treatment. It really is very tangible for us -- you're dealing with it not only at work, but in everyday life. It's been much more than just patients that I see between eight and five. They are often friends, colleagues, workmates. In addition, we work in six sites around Cape Town. We don't just parachute in, do our research and leave. We've established strong relations with the community.

There's been recognition that young people are particularly vulnerable. One of the things we've been doing is fundraising to build the youth centre where we're going to test a model of [having] comprehensive recreation, education and sexual and reproductive health services all under one roof. It's trying to break through that nihilism of: "My mother and father have HIV, my brother's died of Aids - I'm probably also going to go that way." Somehow, we need to break out of that and create some hope.

Are you engaged in the politics of South Africa?
Well, I think we are at heart activists, simply because, again, you can't work in this field and not be politically aware. We work hard to change policy, but through evidence. Our strategy is always [to] create or find the evidence, write about it, then convince people to change their policies if required, or to modify policy accordingly. It's a slow and often arduous process, and we know that.

Having said that, we are in a province of South Africa that has been incredibly open to research and to researchers. The Western Cape is very progressive in that regard. I guess we've been luckier than many. We feel very hopeful that we are now in a new era, where government wants to hear, and there's the strong sense that we're all swimming in the same direction, which I think is very helpful.

Having said that, there are lots of competing priorities in this country. How do you decide on housing versus prevention versus treatment? Somehow, we have to move all of these agendas forward in whatever way we can, and it's our job to find evidence to show what is the best, most cost-effective way of doing it. We are not the richest nation on earth, but we are not the poorest nation on earth, so somehow we've got to find that middle road.

Do you personally feel political? Do you vote?
Oh yes. I came from Zimbabwe, perhaps politically quite naive, to UCT, which was a very liberal university in those days. I had quite a political awakening as a result of that.

What do you mean?
I came to university in the 1980s, which was an incredibly volatile time in South Africa's history. And the 1990s were the most liberating and wonderfully eye-opening period. That initial . . . blissful, starry-eyed, honeymoon phase is a little bit over. We really do need to roll up our sleeves now and say, "What are the issues at hand?" And, of course, for me as an infectious diseases doctor, the 1990s have really been the hardest in terms of the HIV epidemic. We've seen the numbers sky-rocket. We've watched many people die. While the first world had opportunities to treat, we were scrounging around for the most basic of treatments.

Do you think there's been a lack of political leadership in South Africa?
Yes. Civil society became the leaders. We have had to take on the government on some occasions, and we have done that. On other occasions, we've taken on the pharmaceutical companies with the government. It's been about our patients and the people that we serve, so we've needed to take whichever side was required in order to further the agenda. Yeah, I think South Africa has huge challenges still. We stand here on the tip of Africa, and, some days, you kind of recognise that it's a big job, and how ever are we going to meet all the challenges? But the little triumphs along the way do count, and I think we are making progress.

How do you balance your work with the rest of your life?
I married someone who is in exactly the same field. He's the director of the HIV centre at UCT and I'm the deputy director, and we run the foundation together, so a lot of our work comes home. This is really a 24/7 thing and we're forever contemplating what the next steps are, what the strategies are. Also, we have a great team at work who can be relied upon, and I think that's the way to do it: learn to rely on others, and then a little bit of forward planning. And love what you do, so you don't mind doing it 24/7.

We have two grown-up children who live in England and are practically independent and on their own, but we also have a seven-year-old, Oliver. Maybe that's the other thing that happens. I've been reading a lot in the UK press recently about how women are having children a lot later. By the time I was qualified and had established my career, it was quite late in my life -- so I had Ollie when I was 40, and he is a great, great joy. He started life with an embryonic carcinoma, so the first three years of his life, we camped at the Red Cross children's hospital because he needed chemotherapy. Once you've got beyond that, you pretty much feel you could cope with most things!

Is there anything you regret?
I've loved being a mother. I think I could have quite enjoyed another child. But things happen the way they do, and you make the decisions. So, no, I don't think I have any regrets at all. The only thing is that I would [like to] have done more of everything. I just feel there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything one wants. I love to paint, and what I'm hoping is that as Ollie gets a little older, I'll be able to get back to painting.

Would you ever like to live anywhere else?
I'm inherently an African. My forefathers went up to Malsequa in 1894 - I'm fourth-generation. It's hard for me to think of living anywhere other than Africa. Certainly, in the immediate future, the work I do seems most relevant here. I lived for some time in New York and I loved it. Considering I had come from a very small backstreet town in the middle of Africa, I absolutely thrived in New York City. I think it's a wonderful city. But what makes me want to stay here for the moment is just the relevance. We feel very relevant in what we do, here, in this part of the world. I'm inherently a hands-on person. I like to engage with the community, with the staff. I think that's where my talent is. Robin, my husband, is the intellectual in the partnership. He's the guy who likes to ponder the data for days on end and see the intricacies of it. My talent is to get into the community and get my hands dirty.

It sounds like a perfect balance.
I think we are a good foil for each other. At the moment, it certainly feels right. It feels like we are contributing, which, to my mind, is actually a huge privilege, and that's the thing I think I would find hardest to give up. It's a huge privilege to feel like you really are in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing. And I imagine there are a lot of people who would give up a lot to be able to do that. I recognise it's something to be savoured for the moment.

Are we all doomed?
I don't think so. I'm an optimist at heart, but I can see why you would ask the question. When you look at the TB-HIV figures, you wonder what the next terrible virus or pathogen is that's waiting around the corner. On the other hand, the thing that strikes me daily is the resilience of humanity, so much so, that it often chokes me. Human beings find a way.

Certainly, if I have anything to do with it, I'll try to avert . . . some of the suffering and difficulties that we see, at least in this part of the world.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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