Are South Africa's Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng comments on a COVID-19 vaccine that is ‘of the Devil’ deserving of calls by medical scientists and the media for his impeachment? Or is it manufactured outrage, with Mogoeng exercising his right to freedom of speech and critics, either inadvertently or deliberately, not understanding his words? MedicalBrief outlines the angry debate.
Speaking at Tembisa Hospital in Gauteng last week, Mogoeng sparked an unexpected public furore from what was scheduled as an innocuous end-of-year thanksgiving ceremony. In his closing prayer, the CJ said ‘I lock out any vaccine that is not of You. If there be any vaccine that is of the Devil, meant to infuse triple-six in the lives of people, meant to corrupt their DNA, any such vaccine, Lord God Almighty, may it be destroyed by fire, in the name of Jesus.’
The furore kicked off expressions of concern immediately after the Chief Justice's remarks late last week and by this week had grown to calls for his impeachment by a number of editors and medical scientists. The scientists calling for impeachment were led by Dr Aslam Dasoo, of the Progressive Health Forum, supported, writes the Financial Mail, by professors Shabir Madhi (Professor of Vaccinology at Wits University, Glenda Gray (president and CEO of the SA Medical Research Council) , Alex van den Heever (chair in Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies at the Wits School of Governance, Ames Dhai (director of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at Wits) and James McIntyre (executive director of the Anova Health Institute.
Mogoeng also prayed for the revival of the country's economy as well as for leaders, who enriched themselves while excluding the people, to be judged ‘without delay’. He lauded health practitioners who continued to work in dangerous circumstances while criminals took advantage of the pandemic: ‘Look at this coronavirus, its a crazy thing, (and) you never know when it can strike and yet you are there. I just hope it is a lie that some people are such heartless, corruption practitioners that, when resources were made available to save lives, they saw it as an opportunity to enrich themselves.’
The following day, Daily Maverick reported that the CJ’s comments had ‘angered’ one of the country’s top vaccine experts, University of the Witwatersrand virology Professor Barry Schoub, who heads the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19. They quoted him as saying: ‘It is unfortunate that someone of that stature is misleading people, because vaccines are such a major part of controlling this epidemic and it is unfortunate that someone with such influence is opposing efforts to control it.’
According to TimesLIVE, Schoub said he had worked in vaccinology for decades and, often, there were two kinds of people who opposed vaccines. The first was an anti-vaxxer activist group that ‘actively opposes all types of vaccinations based on conspiracy theories and unproven claims’. The second was ‘vaccine-hesitant people’ who were ‘genuinely nervous’, and who became vulnerable to fake information that was spread.
‘The former group [anti-vaxxers] you cannot convince. The success rate is not good. But the second group, the hesitant ones, need to be reassured and comforted that vaccines are safe,’ said Schoub. In this context, he said, Mogoeng's words might create hesitancy among those who were previously hopeful of the vaccines
Mogoeng was then questioned at a press conference on his words: ‘I don't know if people honestly misunderstood what I said, or deliberately misunderstood what I said. I said, if there is any vaccine manufactured to advance a satanic agenda, of the mark of the beast, 666, or if there is any vaccine manufactured for the purpose of corrupting the DNA of people – that vaccine must be burnt. God must intervene and destroy it! If people are supporting a satanic agenda, they must tell us why. If they want us to have the 666 mark, they must tell us why.’
Mogoeng said he acknowledged that ‘not all vaccines advance that agenda’.
Reporting on the press conference, Greg Nicholson wrote in Daily Maverick: ‘As South Africa is officially in its second wave of COVID-19 infections and the world awaits the further rollout of coronavirus vaccines, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has defended his prayer for God to intervene in the harmful and corrupt distribution of vaccines, but denies he is an anti-vaxxer.’
It reported Mogoeng as saying that he was not against vaccinations and supported ‘clean’ options without negative side effects. ‘I’m not a scientist. I’m a prayer warrior and I’m encouraging prayer warriors to pray.’
‘I said if there is any vaccine that is being manufactured or advances a satanic agenda of the mark of the beast, 666; if there is any vaccine, anything manufactured for the purpose of corrupting the DNA of people, then that vaccine must be burned, it must die.’
Maverick's Nicholson writes: ‘[Mogoeng] said he had a right to freedom of religion, speech and thought. The Chief Justice vaguely criticised what he defined as a culture of silence that threatens a return to the days of apartheid and colonialism.
‘I don’t care about the consequences. We’ve been quiet for far too long, towing the line. I’m not going to tow any line and it doesn’t matter how many people criticise me. When I believe that I need to address this issue, I’m going to do it.’
Daily Maverick reported that Mogoeng ‘did not touch on the regulatory or ethical approval required to roll out a coronavirus vaccine in South Africa but suggested his concerns were motivated by widespread corruption in the country, as seen in personal protective equipment (PPE) deals, the potential side effects of vaccines and discussions around making them compulsory, such as for international travel’.
‘If there is any vaccine meant to corrupt the DNA of people, I’m asking God – do interrupt… it. Any clean vaccine, they must produce it quickly. People need that for their own health. Where did I say I’m against vaccination, where?’ Mogoeng asked
I’m not against vaccination, no, but any vaccination that will do harm to people I’m praying against it and I will never stop.’
The Daily Maverick report continues: ‘Justice Mogoeng could not detail his unfounded concerns about potential vaccines in South Africa, of which there is considerable information and expert analysis readily available.’
‘According to an Ipsos survey released in October 2020, 64% of South Africans said they would accept a coronavirus vaccine when and if it becomes available. Most of those respondents, however, said they only “somewhat agreed” to taking a vaccine.
‘A recent World Health Organisation report found that the uptake of vaccination programmes depends on an enabling environment, social influences and motivation. Social influences include both immediate networks and media coverage.
‘In 2019, the WHO said vaccine hesitancy was one of the top 10 threats to global health. A study published in The Lancet found that confidence in the importance of vaccines, rather than their safety or effectiveness, was the strongest single determiner of uptake.
‘In a statement, the Africa For Palestine group, which recently criticised Justice Mogoeng for his comments on Israel, said, “We believe that the chief justice’s latest comments undermine medical science and South Africa’s position on the distribution of vaccines”.’
In an analysis published the same day, Daily Maverick's Stephen Grootes had criticised Mogoeng's words under the headline: Chief Justice Mogoeng’s freedom of speech could cost lives – a terrifying and yet not surprising final act.
‘Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng made comments about religion, God and vaccines. This has led to a heated, multi-pronged and nationwide discussion about the role of religion within the law, and whether it is right, or appropriate, for someone in his position to make such comments.
‘While there are some in our society who may be surprised that he has made such statements, in fact, he was always likely to end up in a controversy on these issues. And, like so many in our society at this moment, he is now basing his actions on the more important aspects of his personal identity, rather than his identity as the chief justice of the Republic of South Africa.
‘Mogoeng also said: “I don’t know anything about vaccines. I saw something that says it must be compulsory and you will need to have a vaccination certificate to travel. It must be voluntary. You can’t impose a vaccine on people. Why should I have the vaccine if I am not positive?”
‘Well. Where does one start in discussing the many issues and live wires CJ Mogoeng’s tripped in his exertions?
‘The first may be around the right to freedom of speech. Justice Mogoeng appears to believe that he has a right to express himself, and that his position should not be a hindrance to this. However, he himself has written, in his judgment involving Robert McBride’s defamation case against The Citizen: “Freedom of expression is a right to be exercised with due deference to, among others, the pursuit of national unity and reconciliation…” And: “The right to free expression must be balanced against the individual’s right to human dignity”.
‘It could be argued that this right must also be balanced against the potential harm that the comments cause, and whether they have a basis on scientific fact (in the case of vaccines during a pandemic).
‘His claim that some vaccines might be “666” cannot be based on scientific fact. He himself admits he has no understanding of vaccines. His comments may reasonably be construed to lead to harm, particularly in a context in which it is currently illegal, during the State of National Disaster, to spread falsehoods about the virus.
‘Then there is the issue of vaccines, science and religion … Already, in many places, there is a growing movement of people who believe, without a shred of evidence, that vaccines are harmful. This is perhaps the most dangerous idea to grip large parts of the world since racism.
‘To then claim in public that some vaccines may be “evil” or the “666” is just dangerous. It has already led to claims on Twitter about vaccines and race. It is at least as dangerous as claiming that HIV/Aids can be cured by having a balanced diet of garlic and African potato… Certainly occupying the position of chief justice must come with the responsibility of knowing what the possible consequences of one’s comments could be. If one cannot be sure what one will say while praying, don’t pray in public. If one cannot reasonably predict one’s comments in public, don’t speak in public.
‘It would also appear the question of whether it is appropriate for a person occupying the position of chief justice to speak about religion in this way is likely to lead to heated debates in a country that does not need more fire right now.
‘The chief justice makes much of his faith and says that he is speaking motivated by his beliefs. That is clearly so. But, in a pandemic, with thousands of new cases of Covid-19 daily, as the United States has lost more people than it did in World War 2, as societies around the world re-enter lockdowns, as our nation is once more gripped by fear, as our continent fears more waves of death, the chief justice is questioning the one thing that could save us: a safe and effective vaccine.
‘Perhaps the question he should answer is this: Never mind the religion, Sir. Is your behaviour not immoral, after all?’
Adriaan Basson, editor-in-chief of News24, joined the condemnation. South Africa deserved better than a chief justice ‘making bizarre comments’ and going around spreading conspiracies that are not steeped in fact. This ‘has raised the question whether Mogoeng is fit to continue in his important position.’
‘As custodian of the judiciary, Mogoeng is required to be a champion of the truth … Mogoeng's prayer comments were not steeped in fact or science.
‘He may well choose not to follow science, but as chief justice, who may very well be required to adjudicate in matters next year involving COVID-19 and vaccines, he is not allowed to spread fake news about devilish vaccines designed to damage humans.
‘Unfortunately, it seems as if Mogoeng has been spending too many late nights trawling right-wing conspiracy websites.
‘The phenomenon of disinformation targeting modern vaccines, that by and large ended illnesses like polio, is a tragic reality that governments and health authorities have to manage… Vaccines are scheduled to be available in South Africa from mid-next year and the likes of Mogoeng should be dealt with before they cause too much harm.
‘Here's the issue with his controversial statements: his theory about vaccines that are produced with the sole purpose of damaging humans is not steeped in any facts. It is literally a conspiracy theory grabbed from the internet without any factual or scientific backing.
‘As chief justice and experience lawyer, Mogoeng deals with matters of fact on a daily basis. If he had uncovered a pharmaceutical company that intentionally plans to poison us with a Covid-19 vaccine, he should immediately report it to the World Health Organisation or local authorities.
‘I strongly suspect he does not have direct knowledge or evidence of such wrongdoing at his disposal, meaning he was essentially spreading fake news.
‘He should not deflect from the problematic content of his prayer by saying people want to limit him to express his religion. That is patently untrue. This issue is not that he prayed but what he prayed.
‘It is good that complaints have been lodged with the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) against Mogoeng for his reckless statements. If the JSC finds him guilty of gross misconduct, steps should be initiated to have him impeached. South Africa deserves better than a chief justice going around spreading quackery.’
Rob Rose, editor of Financial Mail, endorses Basson's and Grootes' views and dismisses Mogoeng's defence: ‘In his own defence on Friday, Mogoeng argued a technical point: I never said the vaccine was imbued with the devil; I only said if it was. That’s a disingenuous claim. The chief justice surely knows many people won’t hear this qualifier, and instead view what he said as confirmation of their room-temperature IQ beliefs.’
Dasoo writes in City Press that since his appointment, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has held forth on several political and social issues. His evangelical demeanour (he is apparently a lay preacher) often breaches the threshold of judicial reserve – a licence he perhaps mistakenly believes his elevated office affords him.On the contrary, it indicates a worrying neglect by him of the ironclad and overriding imperative of the doctrine of the separation of powers.
‘Beyond his widely reported public utterances – such as those on women and on Israeli exceptionalism and the countryʼs occupation of Palestine – his controversial oeuvre now extends to public health.
‘The astonishing millenarian and fundamentalist underpinnings of his freely given views offend the rightful expectation of broader society that nonpartisan ideation and rigorous secularity must inhabit judicial doctrine, discourse and function. The chief justiceʼs comments wholly fail these constitutional tests.
‘The advent of the Covid-19 coronavirus, a pandemic of biblical proportions, no less, understandably prompts prayer by people of faith around the world who seek divine protection from the scourge.The faithful find guidance and relief in these trying times through prayer, which provides succour to those beset with the infection and for those fearful of its consequences. This is aptly observed by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Faith sees best in the dark.”
‘To his frequently banal disposition, Mogoeng has now contrived to add, via a public lecture at a hospital, of all places, a prayer not only begging for divine deliverance from the pandemic, but also launching an astounding attack on vaccines. This is unconscionable and the action of an ignorant fearmonger leading his followers into danger.
‘Vaccination is voluntary and people can rightly choose to not be inoculated against the virus if they so wish. There is a segment of the population set against it, as is their right, whatever oneʼs view of them or their beliefs. Their right not to be vaccinated, however, is at its limit when their failure to be vaccinated prevents herd immunity from developing, thereby perpetuating transmission and exposing others to harm.
‘For the chief justice of a secular state to actively militate against vaccination out of a religious dogma that skirts the boundaries of reason, deploying a proselytising populism full of fire and brimstone to sow fear, is beyond the pale and is a resounding abuse of his office. It is incitement to harm, the animating principle that defines hate speech.
‘The absence of self-awareness and discernment, and a paucity of basic scientific understanding are truly appalling traits in the most senior judicial officer in the land. Mogoeng seems to not care that, at all times on a public platform, he holds the position of chief justice and should comport himself accordingly. It also indicates that South Africaʼs judiciary is poorly led and its people are at risk of being subjected to partisan and subjective justice.
‘What he offers instead is prayer against rationality, reason and science, with which religion has often been at odds through the ages, but which he now shamelessly weaponises by turning the public square at which he represents his office into his preacherʼs pulpit. He fails to understand that we are citizens, not congregants.
‘His subsequent lack of remorse and defiance when questioned about his remarks admit to a person of unsound temperament and astonishing arrogance. The absence of humility and his refusal to entertain the idea that there are many who may know more and better than he does are simply intolerable.
‘Having been plucked from obscurity by former president Jacob Zuma to fill the position of chief justice, which he has on numerous occasions defiled, Mogoeng should be impeached and shown the door now,’ concludes Dasoo.
Support for Mogoeng was sparse, with a single impassioned rebuttal of Grootes' Daily Maverick article coming from Onkgopotse Tabane, editor of Leadership Magazine, also writing in Daily Maverick. Tabane describes Grootes' analysis as ‘highly patronising … drivel … and wrong’.
‘Your argument states, in summary, that during a pandemic, like in a war, we must all defer to the government and not say anything that may cause panic (and death). So, if the CJ believes that a vaccine may be harmful, he must keep quiet in the interests of the “broader good” (as you quote him, out of context, in one of his judgments). He must keep quiet in case he offends those who are working to save lives. This attitude is not genuine. When the pandemic set in, some of us warned that the large scale, and emergency purchase of PPE would result in corruption and stealing under the guise of “necessary emergency deviations”.
‘So, when the CJ raises a flag in a prayer that any bad vaccine must not see the light of day, in your well-considered view, this may cost lives. By extension, therefore, he need not question why South Africa has not made a deal with a South African-based company that wants to provide vaccines. He must not question why African countries will be last in line, even when they were first in the vaccine trials… because, this may cost lives: by the West, you suggest, may choose to marginalise Africa if it is questioned. So, the CJ must just shut up and keep his views to himself.’
Tabane then examines the claims that Mogoeng is against vaccination:
‘Your piece assumes that the CJ is against vaccination and you lament that he uses his faith to “fudge” this – and, so, you say it is hard to engage with him. It should be because he has never said he is against it – he has argued, correctly, that this should be voluntary and that bad vaccines (and I am sure you will agree they are possible) must not see the light of day. I don’t see how anyone can disagree with this.
‘How this call is comparable to the opposition against ARVs is beyond me. ARVs save lives, but they are neither a cure, nor are they perfect. They are not above criticism as a form of creating life-long dependencies. Scientific and public discussion about their efficacy has not been banned; hence they have kept on being improved over the years. Your analogy with the terrible HIV/Aids dithering feels like a desperate attempt to paint the CJ in a bad light. You fail dismally.’
Speaking to News24, an advocate, Deon Pool, said: ‘The judge has been very clear about how dedicated he is to his faith and how passionate he is about it. I think it must be seen for that that he's someone who professes his faith in a very reverent and very passionate manner.’ Pool said he did not view Mogoeng's comments as ones that were ‘crossing the line’.
‘Another legal expert, Professor Retselisitsoe Moses Phooko from the University of Johannesburg, weighed in on the matter, saying the judge had a right to pray in whatever manner he deemed fit. He said everyone in South Africa had the right to freedom of expression, including the right to practise freedom of religion.
‘Phooko, however, added one should be "very cautious", especially when occupying an office such as that of chief justice. He said one needed to be responsible, "whether you are praying or exercising that freedom of expression when you're dealing with such a global crisis and [especially] something that the global community is still struggling to identify a cure [for]".’
Full Financial Mail report – Scientists call for Mogoeng's impeachment /strong>
Full News24 report – Mogoeng prays against any Covid-19 vaccine from the devil to be destroyed
Full TimesLIVE report
Full Greg Nicholson report in Daily Maverick
Full Stephen Grootes article in Daily Maverick report
Full Aslam Dasoo article in City Press
Full rebuttal of Grootes by Onkgopotse Tabane on Daily Maverick
Full News24 report on legal experts Pole and Phooko (subscription required)
An analysis by Mark Oppenheimer on BusinessLIVE as to whether Mogoeng's earlier remarks on Israel merited impeachment