Tuesday, February 02, 2010

South African presidents and HIV prevention: the madness never stops

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki famously denied that HIV causes AIDS, and affirmed that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was really just a ploy by pharmaceutical companies to squeeze money out of African countries. He supported 'rogue scientists' who tried to support this unorthodox view with scientific evidence, though the larger scientific community was profoundly unimpressed. When it became obvious that his position on the subject was untenable, he kept hush on the whole epidemic, while sending out his minions to discretely and not-so-discretely enact his viewpoint in health policy. It led to lukewarm HIV prevention efforts, right when a real show of force and determination was needed to save lives. There are still calls, in some quarters of South African society, for Mbeki to stand trial for this episode.

When Jacob Zuma came to power, there were misgivings. Here was a man who was accused (and eventually acquitted) of rape, and who during the trial affirmed that he had unprotected extramarital sex with a HIV-positive woman, and in addition, believed that a post-coital shower was sufficient to protect himself from the virus. It was not looking good. However, President Zuma did seem to take a more progressive stance on HIV/AIDS than his predecessor in the first year of office. There seemed to be more committment in regard to provision of anti-retroviral treatment and HIV prevention campaigns.

And now this. The news this week is that President Zuma has recently fathered a 'love child' with the daughter of the owner of the Orlando Pirates, a local professional soccer team. From which one can reasonably gather, another case of unprotected extramarital sex -- from a man with three wives, one fiance and 20 children already.

I was listening on the radio today to various condemnations and defenses of the president. The condemnations were predictable, and so were some of the defenses (especially opportunistic appeals to cultural relativism). But one defense struck me: that the sexual behavior of the president will not have an effect on HIV prevention in the country, because studies have shown that a person's sexual behavior is more likely to be influenced by his or her own peers than by his or her president. No need to worry.

Perhaps that is true, though more research is needed. What seems true is that South Africa is back to failed leadership again, in the most personal way: the president apparently cannot restrict himself to only five sexual partners, and when he breaks out, he can't locate a condom dispenser. And when he is sitting there at the next World Aids conference, with his red ribbon on, promoting the use of condoms, what are we supposed to think?

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