Earlier this week, advocates praised South African President Jacob Zuma’s new campaign to test nearly one-third of the population for HIV/AIDS. In South Africa, Voice of America News reports, an estimated 5.7 million people, or 11 percent of the total population, are infected with HIV.
In an important gesture against stigma, the South African president publicly announced the results of his latest HIV test as part of his new campaign. “My April results, like the three previous ones, registered a negative outcome for the HIV virus,” Mr. Zuma said.
IWHC partner Dean Peacock, co-Director of Sonke Gender Justice Network offers some context on the significance of this latest action from the controversial President:
“I think we should applaud President Zuma for testing and for encouraging others to do the same. It represents a really significant departure from the defensiveness and denialism of the Mbeki [previous] administration. However, we know–because he has told us and because he has fathered a number of children with women who are not his wives–that President Zuma has had unsafe sex. Perhaps it’s expecting too much but it would have been great to hear him say something to the effect of: ‘I know I’ve taken risks which put me and my partners at risk so I feel lucky to have tested negative. For my own health and the health of my wives and girlfriends, I’m here by committing to practice safe sex every time I have sex. I encourage everyone else to do the same.’”
Dean Peacock readily acknowledges the weight of his demands, but offers the urgency of the epidemic as reason enough to demand these kinds of strong statements:
“In some ways that’s a lot to ask. In other ways, given our HIV prevalence rates, that sort of honesty and candor should be a basic expectation of our President.”
While I laud Zuma’s initiative to encourage testing among South Africans, I’d also like to echo Dean Peacock’s comments that this campaign alone will not stop the HIV epidemic in South Africa. If we truly want to stop HIV/AIDS—not only in South Africa, but all over the continent and worldwide—we must invest in approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care, and support that effectively reach women and young people as well as men. For more on this approach, I recommend reading “Three Priority Actions on HIV/AIDs for Women and Girls“.
And to learn more about the work of Sonke Gender Justice Network in South Africa, click here.