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Mbeki: Battle Against AIDS 'Critically Important' - 2002-04-24


South African President Thabo Mbeki has made his strongest statement yet on HIV and AIDS, promising leadership in the fight against the disease. The South African president has been under pressure at home and abroad to change his policy on the disease.

President Mbeki told The Star newspaper he is ready to take the lead in the battle against HIV and AIDS. He called it "critically important" that he communicate correct messages on the matter.

In an interview with the Johannesburg newspaper, Mr. Mbeki urged South Africans to take responsibility for their own health - and their own sexual behavior. In his words, "You cannot say, I can behave anyhow and then, when I fall sick, I can go to hospital and say the government must do something."

The statement is seen as a major turnaround for Mr. Mbeki. In the past, he has earned criticism from AIDS activists for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and for appearing to downplay the degree to which AIDS is affecting South Africa.

The United Nations said more than four million South Africans are infected with HIV - giving the country the largest population of HIV-positive people in the world.

Political analyst Stephen Friedman, of the Center for Policy Studies, said Mr. Mbeki's strongly-worded statement is a big step toward getting the message across to the South African people, and turning the tide of the epidemic.

"I think it will help significantly. I think there's evidence around the globe, if you look at what goes into an effective national effort against HIV and AIDS. Whatever type of political system you're talking about, there's a wide body of opinion which said that political leadership from the head of government is an extraordinarily-important component of this," Mr. Friedman said.

Mr. Mbeki's comments come a week after he presided over a cabinet meeting that resulted in a dramatic change in South Africa's AIDS policy.

Under the new policy, public hospitals will be able to prescribe anti-retroviral drugs to rape survivors - drugs that can keep them from contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And the government has pledged to make the drug Nevirapine more widely available. It can keep HIV-positive pregnant women from passing the virus on to their unborn children.

The policy change followed years of growing criticism of South Africa's AIDS policy, from both the international community and from critics at home.

Mr. Friedman said it is likely that the president's about-face was influenced by pressure from abroad, as he attempts to convince rich Western nations that Africa is a good place for investment and trade. But Mr. Friedman said domestic pressure also probably played a role.

"You had a policy that was increasingly being criticized by people who command immense respect within the government constituency - former President Mandela, Archbishop Tutu, professor Makgoba of the Medical Research Council. These are people who cannot be accused of being hostile to the government because they are opposed to majority rule. And I think that we saw a cumulative, snowballing process in which the president's view and the government's view was running into more and more difficulties with his own community," Mr. Friedman said.

He said some commentators are saying the government has backtracked on its AIDS policy. But he argued that is not really the case, especially in a country with a relatively new democracy, where Mr. Mbeki's party controls roughly two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

"I think the fact that Mr. Mbeki and his government have listened to public opinion on this issue is a major step forward for strengthening South African democracy. And I think that rather than looking at this as some government backtrack, I think it's far more important to look at this as a sign that perhaps our democracy is stronger than we had hoped," Mr. Friedman said.

Some of the president's critics say it took him too long to take a strong leadership role on the AIDS crisis. Mr. Friedman said the policy change did come later than many onlookers had hoped. But he and other analysts say the important thing is that it happened, and now the government and civil society can stop fighting over AIDS and start fighting the disease together.