South Africa's new Aids plan was lauded yesterday by the chief of the UN's Aids agency, who said the country was now well placed to lead Africa into a new phase in responding to the disease.
"Failure to reach the ambitious, but necessary goals would be a collective failure on all our parts. You have a better chance than any other country in the region to deliver on Aids. If you can't, who can?," UNAIDS chief Peter Piot told the opening of South Africa's third Aids conference in Durban.
However, while Piot praised a turnaround in the government's Aids strategy, the opening of the conference was marred by a dispute between government and organisers over a perceived slight to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
The controversial health minister who recently returned to some of her duties after having a liver transplant, withdrew from the programme after being sidelined as a panellist.
"I have to address this thorny issue. The minister withdrew from the programme because of the place you put for her. You can't do that. You cannot just put her in a panel," said Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka.
Tshabalala-Msimang, often called Dr Beetroot for flouting the use of vegetables to combat Aids, stirred controversy at the International Aids Conference in Toronto last August after South Africa displayed garlic and beetroot at its stall.
At the time, UN Special Envoy Stephen Lewis called Pretoria's Aids policies "more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state".
She has since been sidelined and moved out of the public eye due to a long illness, with Mlambo-Ngcuka leading a newly-revived South African National Aids Council.
Mlambo-Ngcuka chastised organisers for their "unhelpful politics".
"The minister is our champion of health policy and the custodian of its implementation. And you allocate a speaking slot to her deputy," she said.
Piot said South Africa was in a good position to build alliances with fast-emerging economies to negotiate cheaper drugs, and had leverage on continental organisations.
Ambitious and credible
"You have an ambitious and credible new five-year National Strategic Plan for Aids," said Piot of the plan which aims to halve new infections by 2011.
Some 5.5 million South Africans are living with HIV/Aids, with 90% of all new infections among young women.
"Madam Deputy President, it is good to see you in charge of
South Africa's Aids Council," said Piot. – (Sapa-AFP)