South Africa: government break with the past

President Jacob Zuma uttered the words, but South Africans have long known the truth.

“We are not yet winning this battle. If we are to stop the progress of this disease through our society, we will need to pursue extraordinary measures,” he told MPs at the end of October.

Everyone knew the importance of his statement as soon as he had said it.

The world’s media picked it up. The sighs of relief reverberated. To be fair, the state had shifted steadily on the virus for at least three years after the appointment of then-Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to oversee its response to HIV/Aids.

Former Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, better known as Dr Beetroot, was dramatically sidelined. Despite this, the country desperately needed its president to be a consistently vocal champion on HIV/Aids, and for President Zuma to become that, after Mbeki’s devastating approach, is no small thing.

There can be no doubt his words will echo on Tuesday, World Aids Day, held up as a symbolic victory for HIV/Aids activists and those who have taken so much strain for so long in trying to deal with the virus in the public health sector.

Now the fact that South Africa has the largest antiretroviral (ARV) programme in the world and that the Government’s five-year National Strategic Plan (NSP) has earned global praise can be hoisted high – almost unconditionally.

Painful memories about hundreds of thousands of lives lost for no reason while Mr Mbeki and Ms Tshabalala-Msimang were in control, can begin to be worked through.

A study by Harvard researchers last year estimated that the more than 365 000 people who died from HIV/Aids primarily during Mbeki’s administration could have been saved had they been on ARVs.

And it is this tragedy which was recently evoked in the probably extreme response from the Young Communist League that Mbeki should be charged with genocide.

The 2006 expansion of the ARV programme and the HIV/Aids strategy were hard-won, wrought under the most desperate and vitriolic of circumstances out of a Health Department and a presidency that never quite accepted the truth about the virus.
That’s why the philosophical and ideological break with the past marked by President Zuma’s speech officially ushers in a new era.

At the same time, it seems clear that the scale of the impact of the previous administration’s HIV/Aids denials has been underplayed.

This was revealed to some extent when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan made his extraordinary intervention of R900 million to the Department of Health in his medium-term budget policy statement.

An extra R240m has been added to that amount by the US president’s Emergency Fund for Aids Relief. Minister Gordhan’s statement and President Zuma’s speech came at around the same time, each bolstering the other.

Cabinet approved the NSP in May the following year and also constituted the SA National Aids Council, the aim being to bring down the incidence of HIV infection by 50 percent by 2011.

Source:, 20091128

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