The South African government has traditionally taken a head-in-the-sand approach to AIDS, even though the nation is suffering one of the worst epidemics in the world. However, recent shifts in policy indicate a newfound interest in aggressively addressing the crisis.
JOHANNESBURG—The South African government is seeking to shake off years of international denunciation for its handling of the AIDS epidemic—including a fixation on the supposed protective powers of beets and lemons—while expanding treatment, testing and prevention programs, officials and activists say.
In public comments and private meetings over the past six weeks, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has emphasized that the government now believes unequivocally that HIV causes AIDS, a connection that President Thabo Mbeki once publicly questioned. She has also said that antiretroviral drugs must be the centerpiece of the government’s response while playing down the dietary recommendations long cited by Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as key to fighting AIDS.
“The beetroot and all that lemon stuff is out the window,” an adviser involved in recasting the government’s policy said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about it. “These guys are now serious about getting it right.”
Driving the recent change is a growing realization of the severity of AIDS in South Africa—an estimated 5.4 million of 47 million citizens have HIV, among the highest totals in the world—and concern that the controversy surrounding the disease was damaging the country’s international reputation.