Since the early 1990s, Mbeki had turned his back on scientific evidence linking HIV as the cause of AIDS. Mbeki’s stance on the cause of AIDS is the largest contributing factor in the South African government’s failure to scale-up treatment. In 2000, Mbeki called together a group of scientists including a group of ‘dissident scientists’ to discuss the cause of AIDS (55). Later that year at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, he spoke publicly rejecting the accepted science that HIV causes AIDS and instead focused on the need to alleviate poverty in Africa as a way to combat AIDS (56). He said the cause was poverty, bad nourishment, and general ill health while also noting that more Western medicine was not what Africa needed (57).
Since his public statements, Mbeki and the South African government have been hit by a backlash of criticism from the international community and Mbeki has remained silent on the topic. The year 2000 was the same year that the Department of Health launched a five-year plan to combat HIV/AIDS. However, Mbeki’s statement and the lack of strong governmental support led to much “foot-dragging” (58). Mbeki had turned down grants, funding, and free medicines to scale-up the treatment program as a result of his denial. Now a recent Harvard study has placed impact numbers with Mbeki’s denial claims. The authors of the study estimate that more than 330,000 people died unnecessarily in South Africa and that 35,000 babies could have been protected from HIV-infection as a direct result of Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS policy and denial (59).
In 2002, with international pressure growing, the South African High Court ordered that nevirapine, which combats the spread of HIV from mother-to-child, be made available (60). Sadly despite offers of free and cheap antiretrovirals (ARVs), the South African government was hesitant to offer the medicines and only distributed in two test sites. In 2003, the government approved a plan to make antiretrovirals publicly available and by 2005 there was at least one service location for AIDS-related illness in each of the 53 districts (61). However the program did not reach enough people and the HIV prevalence rate among pregnant women was recorded at 30.2%, a steady increase since 1990 (62). The treatment program was beyond inadequate.
The case for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention suffered another blow at the hands of South African government leadership in 2006. Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma went on trial for the rape of an HIV positive woman and claimed that having taken a shower afterwards protected him from HIV transmission (63). This only heightened international outrage and pressure on South Africa’s HIV treatment programs. At the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto, UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS Stephen Lewis, called the South African government “obtuse and negligent” (64). By the end of the year the government had announced that it was drafting a framework to tackle AIDS and pledged to increase public access to antiretrovirals (65).
Mbeki was ousted from his ANC leadership position in September of 2008 and the interim president appointed Barbara Hogan as the Health Minister. Many saw this as a major turning point in South Africa’s HIV/AIDS policy, especially as the government is working to get antiretrovirals to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, Zuma is set to win the upcoming presidential election and has not made any apology for his false statement on HIV prevention.
55. “HIV & AIDS in South Africa: The history of AIDS in South Africa.” Avert.
56. Boseley, Sarah. “Mbeki Aids denial ‘caused 300,000 deaths.” Guardian News UK. 26 November 2008.
59. “HIV & AIDS in South Africa: The history of AIDS in South Africa.” Avert.
Coming next: What happened to Reconstruction and Development?
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