Magazine article African Business

S African Government Backs Down over AIDS: Political and Social Pressure Is Mounting on South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki's Government to Produce a Coherent HIV/Aids Treatment Plan. Tom Nevin Reports on the Latest Developments. (Health)

Magazine article African Business

S African Government Backs Down over AIDS: Political and Social Pressure Is Mounting on South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki's Government to Produce a Coherent HIV/Aids Treatment Plan. Tom Nevin Reports on the Latest Developments. (Health)

Article excerpt

The campaign to provide anti-retroviral drugs for South Africa's millions of HIV-positive victims is growing more intense by the day. It cranked up another gear when Aids activists charged two Cabinet Ministers with culpable homicide, the South African Medical Association called for a state of emergency to slow down the runaway Aids epidemic, and demonstrators took to the streets and occupied police stations.

The ANC government has repeatedly refused to provide anti-retroviral treatment and had to be taken to court last year to provide even short courses of anti-retroviral medicines to reduce the risk of HIV transmission from mothers to children, and rape victims. It has stubbornly resisted a national roll-out of anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/Aids sufferers, mainly citing cost as the reason. Public pressure and protest has mounted daily.

In what appeared a desperate attempt to communicate its position on the disease which, it complains, is misunderstood by most South Africans, the Health Department ran full-page advertisements in Sunday newspapers. Headed 'A people's contract to fight HIV/Aids' the notices insisted that the government does have a plan to prevent, treat, care and support people living with HIV/Aids. The advertisement served only to sow more confusion and heighten anger. "Their plan is to talk about plans and think about more plans," was one activist's interpretation of it. "There is no action treatment plan."

Conspicuously, the advertisement stated that its new national strategy is based on the premise that Aids is caused by HIV infection. President Mbeki, however, has never retracted his long-held views that blame poverty as the reason for Aids proliferation and deny HIV as a cause, saying only that he has withdrawn from the debate.

Calling for a truce with the government s many detractors on the subject, the advertisement concluded that "we can make even greater progress as a nation if all lend a hand in the Partnership Against Aids. Our energies should be spent fighting Aids, not one another."

THORN IN THE ANC SIDE

None of this had much impact on the highly sceptical Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a socially powerful, vociferous and internationally well connected pressure group that has become a deep thorn in the ANC's side.

The TAC took the Department of Health all the way to the Supreme Court last year and eventually won a bitterly contested case that forced the government to roll out anti-retroviral treatment, specifically to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, and treat rape victims.

The TAC has now moved its legal attack forward by laying culpable homicide charges against Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and Trade and Industry Minister, Alex Erwin.

The charge claims that the two Ministers are responsible for the deaths of 600 HIV-positive people a day in South Africa because they had no access to anti-retroviral drugs. It demanded that the government make an "irreversible and unequivocal" commitment to a national public-sector anti-retroviral treatment plan.

Some 100 TAC militants stormed the Sharpeville police station, occupied the charge office and demanded that police arrest the two Ministers. Protesters later said Sharpeville was significant because it was a focal point of South Africa's liberation struggle. Police gunned down dozens of anti-apartheid activists in the township in 1960 for defying pass laws.

THREE STEPS BACKWARDS, ONE FORWARD

Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang made headlines both nationally and internationally when she was reported as saying the government could not afford HIV drugs because it needed the money to buy submarines to protect South Africa from attack by the United States! She later said she was misquoted.

Finance Minister Trevor Manuel further reversed the government's Aids policy by stating that Aids drugs are "a lot of voodoo" and that spending government money on them was "a waste of very limited resources". …

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