South African President Thabo Mbeki Sworn in for Second Term; Celebration Overshadowed by HIV/AIDS Epidemic
South African President Thabo Mbeki on Tuesday was sworn in for his second term on the 10th anniversary of the country's first democratic election, but the celebration was "tempered by glaring problems" facing the country, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Reuters reports (Esipisu, Reuters, 4/27). The South African Parliament on Friday re-elected Mbeki to a second and final term during its first session since the country's general elections on April 14, Xinhuanet reports (Ming, Xinhuanet, 4/24). During the general elections earlier this month, South Africans voted for a 400-member National Assembly, which then chooses the president (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/14). Mbeki's African National Congress party "scored its biggest victory" in the 10 years of free elections in the country, with Mbeki pledging to do more to combat unemployment, poverty, crime and HIV/AIDS, according to Xinhuanet (Xinhuanet, 4/24). There are approximately 5.3 million South Africans living with HIV/AIDS, the highest number of cases in any country in the world (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/14).
Part of Mbeki's first term was "overshadowed by the furor" over his "controversial" views regarding the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic, the AP/Raleigh News & Observer reports (Leonard, AP/Raleigh News & Observer, 4/24). Mbeki's "obstinate refusal to ... address ... urgently" the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic is one of "his most glaring failures," according to the New York Times (LaFraniere, New York Times, 4/27). Although the country's 10 years of democracy have been marked by "dramatic political and social reform," advocates say that the government has been slow to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Associated Press reports. About 600 people die each day from complications related to HIV/AIDS, "decimating the work force, destroying families' earning power and creating a generation of orphans," according to the Associated Press (Nullis, Associated Press, 4/24). Mbeki previously questioned the connection between HIV and AIDS and "dismissed" antiretroviral drug treatment as "poisonous," according to the AP/News & Observer. However, the government recently launched a national antiretroviral drug treatment program, the AP/News & Observer reports (AP/Raleigh News & Observer, 4/24). The national program aims to provide antiretroviral drugs to 1.2 million people -- or about 25% of the country's HIV-positive population -- by 2008. Gauteng this month became the first of the country's nine provinces to begin dispensing drugs under the government's program. Western Cape started its own program earlier this year, and other provinces are expected to begin programs in the coming weeks. Officials expect 50,000 HIV-positive people to be on antiretroviral drugs by the end of the year and 1.4 million people to be on the drugs by 2009, at a total cost of $700 million (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/13).
Treatment Policies Trailing
Regardless of the national treatment plan, Mbeki's "foot-dragging" on AIDS has "damage[d]" his credibility in South Africa and throughout the world, the Times reports. Some Mbeki aides say that several factors contributed to the delay in the rollout of the antiretroviral program, according to the Times. The country was a "new democracy" focused on nation-building, and the "astronomical" cost of the treatment could have "drained the national treasury," the Times reports. In addition, some hospitals and clinics were not prepared to treat patients, according to the Times (New York Times, 4/27). Dr. Ed Jarvis of Soweto's Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital said, "The South African health system is like a toy car. It looks tough and rigid, but it is going nowhere fast, and the gradient is increasing all the time" (Associated Press, 4/24). The South African HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign has said that tens of thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS in the country have died while the government "dithered" in its response, according to the Times. Even with the beginnings of the antiretroviral drug program in place, South Africa's HIV/AIDS policies "still trail those of more progressive" African countries, including Botswana, by three years, the Times reports (New York Times, 4/27).
Mbeki is set to name his cabinet on Wednesday, but there have been "few clues" as to who the president will "keep for his second term and who will go," South Africa's Star reports. Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang may be replaced because there has been "much unhappiness" in the ANC party about the way she has addressed the HIV/AIDS epidemic, according to the Star (Michaels, Star, 4/26). Tshabalala-Msimang in the past has said that antiretroviral drugs are "poison" and that a combination of garlic, onions, olive oil and African potatoes would strengthen the immune systems of people living with HIV/AIDS (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/16). Her statements have "made her the object of ridicule even within the government" and have directed "doubt on how firmly" Mbeki stands behind the antiretroviral program, the Times reports (New York Times, 4/27). However, Mbeki might decide to keep Tshabalala-Msimang in the cabinet because she is one of his "most loyal lieutenants," according to the Star (Star, 4/26).
Former South African President Nelson Mandela wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times that "[n]o prime minister or president in the history of this country can claim to have done more to improve the lives of our people than President Mbeki." However, Mandela also called on the government to do more "for a better future," according to Xinhua News Agency. He said that unemployment, poverty and disease -- especially HIV/AIDS -- serve as "daily reminders of the depth of the challenges ahead as we enter our second decade of democracy" (Xinhua News Agency, 4/25).
HIV/AIDS and South African Students
The Washington Post on Tuesday examined South African students' attitudes and knowledge about the history and future of the country, saying they "are clear on the future" but "hazy on the past" era of apartheid. According to the Post, "when it comes to fear, what [the students] are warned about most emphatically is not apartheid but the new scourge of AIDS." The children's "lives are defined by what they see around them," including crime, poverty, unemployment and the "imminent threat" of HIV/AIDS, the Post reports (Timberg, Washington Post, 4/27). The complete article is available online.