South African President Thabo Mbeki ‘Silent’ on AIDS in Annual State of the Nation Address
South African President Thabo Mbeki in his State of the Nation address to Parliament today "was silent on the key challeng[e] of AIDS," Reuters reports. Mbeki "shrugged off" renewed demands from hundreds of AIDS advocates who marched on Parliament today, calling for the government to reconsider its "go-slow" approach to the epidemic (Reuters, 2/14). The march was sponsored by the AIDS treatment advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign. TAC Chair Zackie Achmat said that the march was not meant to be "against the government" but in support of a government-sponsored treatment plan (South African Press Association/AllAfrica.com, 2/12). Mbeki said that the government would continue with its current HIV/AIDS policy as part of a broader public health plan targeting other diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. South Africa has almost five million HIV-positive people -- the highest number of any country in the world -- and some AIDS advocates estimate that 200,000 people in the country will die of AIDS-related illnesses this year (Reuters, 2/14). A group of senior opposition party ministers attended Mbeki's speech wearing TAC T-shirts bearing the words "HIV-Positive," according to SAPA. The Democratic Alliance ministers said in a statement that they were wearing the T-shirts to "express solidarity" with the millions of South Africans who are HIV-positive and to "shame President Thabo Mbeki into realizing that his health minister and government are committing genocide by not rolling out antiretroviral drugs." The ministers said, "On this, perhaps the most important Parliamentary event of the year, we realize that our country is at war. A war against HIV/AIDS that the African National Congress seems incapable and unwilling to either recognize or do something about it by acknowledging that HIV does cause AIDS and that we do have the means to provide treatment for it" (SAPA, 2/14). Mbeki previously has questioned the link between HIV and AIDS (Reuters, 2/13)
Mandela 'Distances' Himself From March
Former South African President Nelson Mandela on Wednesday "distanced" himself from the TAC-sponsored march, SAPA/AllAfrica.com reports. Mandela's foundation said in a statement, "Although Mr. Mandela supports the TAC in their call for treatment, the march is not endorsed by the Nelson Mandela Foundation or Mandela personally." According to TAC, the foundation had granted them permission to use for an advertising campaign photos of Mandela that were taken when he visited a TAC-run treatment center in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, in December 2002. "However, it was never anticipated that [the advertising campaign] would include the call for a march on Parliament on the day of the opening of Parliament," the foundation statement said, adding, "We would also like to see the TAC consulting us before using Mr. Mandela's image as far as it concerns taking up their cause with the government" (SAPA/AllAfrica.com, 2/12).
According to Reuters, Mandela has found it difficult to "reconcile his views on some issues such as the need to treat AIDS with his loyalty to the ruling African National Congress" (Reuters, 2/13). Achmat said that the organization understood that Mandela did not endorse the march, but he said that the foundation had "okayed" the poster with Mandela's image, SAPA/AllAfrica.com reports. (SAPA/AllAfrica.com, 2/12). According to Reuters, Achmat said that Mandela may have been pressured into distancing himself from the march. "I have no doubt that there has been some pressure but let me say this in defense of former President Mandela: He has done an enormous amount more than our president has done on HIV and AIDS and the fact that he is standing by the right of people for access to treatment is very important to us" (Reuters, 2/13). In another statement issued on Wednesday, TAC said that it "notes with regret the apparent misunderstanding" by the foundation over the use of Mandela's image. "We have the utmost respect for our former president and would do nothing to take advantage of his position in a manner that causes him embarrassment," TAC said (SAPA/AllAfrica.com, 2/13).