14 December 2007

Concern: ANC candidates and Aids

The battle to lead South Africa's ruling party pits an Aids dissident against a rival who took a shower as a form of safe sex.

The battle to lead South Africa's ruling party pits an Aids dissident against a rival who took a shower as a form of safe sex, in a country which has the world's highest rate of HIV infections.

"We are unhappy and uncomfortable about Mbeki's enormous failure to tackle the problem of HIV/Aids in the past years. As for Zuma, some of his public statements on HIV/Aids and gender issues call for anxiety," said Mark Heywood, spokesman for the country's main Aids lobby, the Treatment Action Campaign.

"We are not supporting either of the two candidates. We have serious reservations about them because their utterances and general disposition to the fight against HIV/Aids are suspect."

The TAC and other lobbies have long been at odds with President Thabo Mbeki and his government over their record in dealing with some 5.5 million HIV sufferers, in particular the limited roll-out of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

Zuma's safe sex shower
But the prospect of Mbeki being replaced as African National Congress leader next week by Jacob Zuma hardly fills them with confidence given he once told a court he showered after sex with an allegedly HIV-positive woman as a precaution against contracting the virus.

Mbeki has kept his counsel in recent years, but caused major controversy in the past by publicly questioning the link between HIV and Aids, suggesting that poverty and nutrition are also involved in the collapse of immune systems.

The government's Aids policy has largely been left in the hands of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang - dubbed Dr Beetroot for advocating a diet of vegetables and garlic to help combat the disease.

When she headed up the South African delegation at an international Aids conference in Toronto in 2006 and displayed vegetables at the country's exhibition stand, a UN envoy called Pretoria's policies "more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state".

Manto touting vegetables
Long-running calls for Tshabalala-Msimang's sacking eased off when she fell ill late last year and her deputy Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge became the driving force behind a new five-year Aids programme which placed a far greater emphasis on ARVs.

However when Tshabalala-Msimang returned to work after a liver transplant, Madlala-Routledge was soon shown the door in a move that was greeted with widespread dismay by AIDS activists and the medical community.

But if Tshabalala-Msimang has raised eyebrows with her touting of vegetables, Zuma also drew ridicule for his testimony in a rape trial last year in which he was ultimately acquitted by testifying that he showered after intercourse to avoid becoming infected with HIV. He was head of the National Aids Council at the time.

During the trial, he also accused his allegedly HIV-positive victim of eliciting the sexual encounter by wearing a short skirt.

He then incurred the wrath of Aids activists earlier this year when he told a heritage day rally: "When I was growing up an ungqingili (gay) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out." Having being deluged with criticism by rights groups, Zuma later apologised.

Even the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), one of Zuma's strongest backers for next week's contest against Mbeki, appears unconvinced by his commitment in the fight against Aids.

"We must continue to put pressure on and engage the new ANC leadership to take the issue of HIV/Aids seriously. So far this has not been the case," COSATU's HIV/Aids coordinator Theo Steele told AFP.

Recent figures released by the United Nations showed South Africa, with its population of 48 million, now has the world's highest number of people infected with HIV at 5.5 million.

The ANC's five-day leadership conference begins Sunday. – (Sapa/AFP)

Read more:
"Mbeki still Aids dissident"
Manto's utterances debunked

December 2007


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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