from Africa in Transition

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and South Africa’s HIV/AIDS Past

July 18, 2012

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More people are living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa than in any other country, according to UNAIDS. It is about 11 percent of the total population, 17.18 percent of the population aged 15-49 years. There has been progress, but HIV/AIDS remains a salient feature of the South Africa landscape. Its effect on the most productive part of the population is devastating.

The disease grew to epidemic proportions during the term of President Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s first “non-racial” government (1994-1999.) As was true in other countries, the response of Mandela and Mbeki’s administrations to the epidemic included denial and confusion, and was often non-scientific. In South Africa, the official response to HIV/AIDS was also colored by quarrels with foreign pharmaceutical companies. The Mbeki government sponsored virodene, essentially a quack remedy, for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, and did not distribute antiretrovirals through the public health system and for a time even blocked AZT trials. It took years for South Africa to join the scientific mainstream in HIV/AIDS treatment. The disease remains stigmatized despite Nelson Mandela’s public acknowledgement after he had left office that a son had died of the disease.

Dlamini-Zuma was minister of health from 1994 to 1999 and was a close political ally of Thabo Mbeki. When Mbeki became president in 1999, he named her foreign minister. She became probably the most powerful woman in South Africa. She is the ex-wife of the current president Jacob Zuma, but there is a consensus that her political success is not related to her former husband. Following South Africa’s six-month diplomatic campaign, she has been elected as chairperson of the African Union Commission, the chief executive position in the organization. This is seen in the media as a significant diplomatic achievement by the Zuma administration and opens the way for increased South African influence on the continent. The media is also portraying it as an accomplishment for Africa’s women.

Dlamini-Zuma, who is an ANC activist, is a medical doctor trained in South Africa and the U.K. As minister of health, her achievements were numerous: she instituted free medical care for children and achieved progress toward dismantling the apartheid dimensions of the healthcare system.

But her association with and support for Mbeki’s anti-scientific approach to HIV/AIDS is a blot. How to account for it? Part of the answer, I speculate, comes from her close political alliance with Mbeki; part of it from the general predisposition among the ANC to search for “unorthodox” treatments; and partly from the confrontation with foreign pharmaceutical companies that made her particularly open to an “African” cure. (Virodene had been developed at the University of Pretoria.) Whatever the reason, her approach to HIV/AIDS associates her closely with what was Mbeki’s greatest domestic policy failure. And that tempers my enthusiasm for her election as chairperson of the African Union Commission.