World Federation of Science Journalists

South African book fair has strong science journalism presence

August 9, 2010

The Cape Town Book Fair – the largest on the African continent – had science journalism in the spotlight during its fifth season July 30-August 2.

The gathering featured South African and other African reporters who have taken on the fraudsters and scam artists preying on the hopes of uneducated people across the continent with phony medicine and science.

Nathan Geffen, author of Debunking Delusions: the Inside Story of the Treatment Action Campaign, was part of a discussion on making quality science writing more accessible and exciting for readers.

Geffen works with the non-profit Treatment Action Campaign, an HIV/AIDS group which has clashed with South African’s African National Congress government. In the past, the government rejected antiretroviral drugs for citizens infected with HIV, demonized medical researchers and tried to treat the virus with beetroot, lemon juice and amadumbe roots.

Along the way, the TAC found itself investigating politically well-connected quacks – locals and foreigners – who peddled vitamins and other dodgy “cures” for the virus. TAC evidence eventually forced the government to change its policies. (Geffen’s book is available at for people not living in South Africa.)

Other speakers were Christina Scott, the science editor of South Africa’s weekly English-language Mail and Guardian newspaper and host of a weekly national radio program called Science Matters on SAfm radio. Scott was a mentor in the first phase of the SjCOOP science journalisme mentoring program of the World Federation of Science Journalists, from 2006 to 2009.

Another speaker was Elsabe Brits from the daily Afrikaans-language national South African newspaper Die Burger (The Citizen), who spoke about errors in communicating evolution at the British Council/WFSJ Darwin Now conference in Alexandria, Egypt, marking Darwin’s 200th birthday.

Brits has exposed a wide range of pseudo-scientists, including hospital-based neurologist Rudi Boshoff. Boshoff turned out to be neither a doctor nor a neurologist, much to the embarrassment of the hospital management, who said they could not be expected to inspect everyone’s credentials.

Brits also exposed Gervan Lubbe, who was profiting from the credulous when he peddled a machine which he claimed could detect malaria before a person developed any symptoms.

Scott and Brits are expected to attend the World Conference of Science Journalists in Cairo, 27 – 29 June 2011. Both are executive members of the South African Science Journalists Association. Another member of the South African association is Adele Baleta, who writes for the international medical journal The Lancet as well as working as a media trainer in Vietnam, Ethiopia, Turkey and Russia.

Marcus Low, editor of the Equal Treatment HIV/AIDS magazine (published in English and translated into South Africa’s Xhosa, Zulu and Tsonga languages), was also to speak at the event, held in the recently refurbished central Cape Town Library, located in the historic old Drill Hall in that city.

The five-year old Cape Town Book Fair is run in partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair. Nearly 275 exhibitors from 34 countries, including Zimbabwe, Germany, Britain, India and Korea, were on hand for the approximately 50,000 visitors who attended.

Nobel laureates were drawn to the book fair as well. Former Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa launched his book for children and Nigerian author and playwright Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel literature prize, spoke about his love of books and the balance between electronic and conventional publishing.

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