BY BRONWEN DACHS
CHURCH officials have praised South African President Jacob Zuma for repeatedly testing for HIV and announcing his status, saying it indicated a new political willingness to address the AIDS epidemic in South Africa.
Dominican Fr Mike Deeb, director of the justice and peace department of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said Mr Zuma’s public disclosure that he recently tested negative for HIV, the virus that causes Aids, “is very significant in this country where the stigma attached to Aids is so strong”.
A new government initiative aims to test 15 million people by the end of June 2011 and to provide antiretroviral drugs to 80 per cent of South Africans in need of treatment. At the initiative’s launch Mr Zuma, 68, said the country would need to tap retired health workers to help staff the campaign. He added that his recent test was the third time he had been tested.
The United Nations says 5.7 million of South Africa’s 48 million population are HIVpositive.
Fr Deeb told the American Catholic News Service: “So many people are afraid of being tested and Mr Zuma’s action could give others courage,” noting that with “lifesaving treatment available, it might be devastating for people to find out they are HIV-positive, but it is not the end of the world”.
Fr Deeb said many people “will have viewed Mr Zuma’s testing with cynicism, but they should separate their views of his own sexual morality from the importance of the president saying that he has been tested for HIV and making the results public”.
“Mr Zuma’s testing is a symbol of a new political willingness to address the crisis of Aids,” he said.
In February South Africa’s bishops criticised Mr Zuma’s “scandalous behaviour” after he admitted fathering a child out of wedlock.
The bishops said in a statement they were appalled at the “irreparable damage that such immorality has done to the nation’s efforts to slow down or even to reverse the rampant spread of HIV and Aids”.
Mr Zuma, 67, has three wives and a fiancee. The child he fathered out of wedlock, with a prominent banker, is widely reported as his 20th.
Mr Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, was widely criticised for his stance on Aids and his questioning of the link between HIV and Aids.
During his 1999-2008 presidency Mr Mbeki’s administration angered many health experts by failing to provide antiretroviral drugs and by pushing foods such as beetroot and garlic as an alternative treatment for HIV.
Fr Peter-John Pearson, head of the bishops’ parliamentary liaison office in Cape Town, said “leaders must lead by example”, and Zuma’s public disclosure of his HIV status “could bring about honest discussion, change attitudes” and encourage people to be tested.