Aids activists dismayed by ANC leadership race

The battle to lead the African National Congress (ANC) pits an Aids dissident against a rival who took a shower as a form of safe sex, in a country that has the world’s highest rate of HIV infections.

The ANC is electing its new leaders at a conference in Polokwane, Limpopo, that starts on Sunday. The front-runners to lead the ruling party are President Thabo Mbeki and ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma.

”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 Treatment Action Campaign spokesperson Mark Heywood.

He added: ”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 Mbeki and his government over their record in dealing with about 5,5-million people living with HIV, in particular the limited roll-out of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

But the prospect of Mbeki being replaced as ANC leader next week by Zuma hardly fills them with confidence, given that the latter once told a court he showered after sex with an allegedly HIV-positive woman as a precaution against contracting the virus. He was head of the National Aids Council at the time.

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 United Nations envoy called Pretoria’s polices ”more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state”.

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 that 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.

During Zuma’s rape trial, he accused his victim of eliciting the sexual encounter by wearing a short skirt. He also 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 HIV/Aids seriously. So far this has not been the case,” said Cosatu’s HIV/Aids coordinator Theo Steele.

Recent figures released by the UN 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. — Sapa-AFP

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