There was a time when South Africa, under former President Thabo Mbeki, was the butt of jokes all over the world for its unorthodox views on combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
That was the Mbeki era that started in 1999 and ended in 2008 when he was ousted from office by his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, at a party conference.
In those days, Mbeki used to tell his fellow South Africans caught up in the pandemic that they should forgo any antiretroviral (ARV) therapy in their fight against HIV/AIDS.
Instead, the president argued, they should rely on a vegetarian diet to combat the deadly syndrome. This, coming from a leader trained in economics, came as a cruel joke to most observers.
While the rest of the world tried to advise the South African leader that his vegetarian diet message was medically incomprehensible, a stubborn Mbeki stood his ground, insisting that he would continue to stick to his vegetarian diet gospel to cure HIV/AIDS among South Africans, despite medical science opposing this.
As Mbeki maintained his position, his compatriots – thousands of whom had seen their HIV status turn into AIDS due to lack of ARVs – began to die one by one, week after week, in urban and rural communities nationwide.
The dying were mainly young people in their prime and productive years, leaving behind children to be raised by their own parents – and even grandparents in some cases.
Then enters Zuma in January 2008.
Fresh from defeating Mbeki at the contentious African National Congress (ANC) party convention in Polokwane in December 2007, Zuma took his populist message of wiping out his former boss’ legacy by instantly reversing Mbeki’s unpopular HIV/AIDS policy of using beetroots and garlic consumption as medication for the pandemic.
Zuma did this by responding to long-expressed public outcry from the country’s medical fraternity and civil society that the use of ARV therapy for victims of HIV/AIDS should be government policy – now that Mbeki was no longer in power.
The reversal of Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS policy was widely applauded in the country, especially by the doctors and activists who had built careers fighting Mbeki to reverse his vegetarian diet as therapeutic relief for victims of HIV/AIDS in the country.
Some 11 years after Zuma authorised the use of ARV therapy for HIV/AIDS victims, South Africa has come a long way.
However, more is needed to be done in the fight against the scourge, South African Deputy President David Mabuza said on World AIDS Day, which is annually observed on 1 December.
Speaking during the official observation of the occasion, Mabuza unashamedly acknowledged this post-Mbeki era development – albeit without giving credit to Zuma, his factional political enemy at the last ANC leadership conference at which the deputy president supported President Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC leadership.
“We must intensify our programme on prevention by employing every method possible to end this epidemic,” Mabuza said in his World AIDS Day Commemoration address at the James Motlatsi Stadium in the North West Province.
He added, “For our part as a country, our journey and contribution to the vision of zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths, has been long and difficult.”
He reflected on the Mbeki era when every week and in every community, the pain of losing someone to AIDS-related illnesses was a common sight.
“We (South Africa) are today acknowledged by UNAIDS and others as a global and continental leader in HIV response. This is precisely because we have adopted and implemented the right and comprehensive policies to respond to this epidemic,” Mabuza said.
He expressed gratitude to partners and supporters worldwide, saying the contributions galvanised local political leadership, civil society and the private sector into coherent action.
“In particular, the United Nations family, the United States government through its PEPFAR programme and the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. We wish to thank you for your continued support and emphasise that your support is not in vain,” the deputy leader told the gathering.
He noted that through the South African National Aids Council, the country has seen the impact of collaborative efforts in moving the response to HIV/AIDS forward.
“We take pride in the fact that in South Africa, government remains the main funder of the country’s comprehensive response by contributing close to 80 percent of the resources,” he added.
Today the AIDS council counts, among its victories, the fact that South Africa has the biggest HIV treatment programme in the world, with more than 4.5 million people on life-saving ARVs, Mabuza said.
“Our antiretroviral treatment programme has resulted in an increase in life expectancy of our people and low levels of mother-to-child HIV transmission rates.
“This means that millions of South Africans who previously had no hope of sustained quality of life, now live longer and are able to contribute to building a South Africa of our dreams,” the deputy president said.