President Jacob Zuma's speech on World AIDS Day was viewed as a definitive turning point for a nation where the previous administration distrusted drugs developed to keep AIDS patients alive and instead promoted garlic treatments. One Harvard study said that resulted in more than 300,000 premature deaths.
Zuma compared the fight against AIDS to the decades-long struggle against the apartheid government, which ended in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela in the country's first multiracial elections.
"At another moment in our history, in another context, the liberation movement observed that the time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight," Zuma said. "That time has now come in our struggle to overcome AIDS. Let us declare now, as we declared then, that we shall not submit , " The Associated Press reports.
It was also reported, the government aims to reduce new HIV infections by half and provide treatment to 80 percent of those who need it by 2011. It is also seeking to reduce the cost of drugs and increasing access to condoms.
Mbeki, who was ousted as president last year, disputed the causal link between HIV and AIDS during his tenure, questioned the effectiveness of anti-AIDS drugs and refused to take a public HIV test. Mbeki’s health minister, Manto Tshabalala- Msimang, urged AIDS sufferers to eat garlic and drink lemon juice and olive oil to strengthen their immune systems.
Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, yesterday urged Mbeki to apologize for his inaction in tackling AIDS.
Zuma has also faced criticism for his views on HIV. He testified in court in 2006 that he had consensual sex with an HIV-positive woman without a condom and showered afterward to minimize his chances of contracting AIDS. He later apologized for his actions, Bloomberg reports.
Meanwhile, currently, public hospitals dispense ARVs when HIV deteriorates to AIDS and patients' CD4 counts are below 200. It was unclear exactly how many more people would now be covered, or how the government would meet the cost.
Former President Mbeki drew sharp criticism for questioning accepted AIDS science and failing to make life-prolonging ARVs widely available. Mbeki's health minister was lampooned for recommending garlic and beetroot as treatments.
But Zuma, an old rival of Mbeki who was elected this year, encouraged all South Africans to undergo HIV testing and likened the battle against AIDS to the struggle against apartheid, ABC News reports.