John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and South Africa’s HIV/AIDS Past

by John Campbell
July 18, 2012

South African diplomat and doctor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma arrives at the leaders meeting at the African Union (AU) in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, July 16, 2012. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


More people are living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa than in any other country, according to UNAIDS. It is about 11 percent of the total population, 17.18 percent of the population aged 15-49 years. There has been progress, but HIV/AIDS remains a salient feature of the South Africa landscape. Its effect on the most productive part of the population is devastating.

The disease grew to epidemic proportions during the term of President Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s first “non-racial” government (1994-1999.) As was true in other countries, the response of Mandela and Mbeki’s administrations to the epidemic included denial and confusion, and was often non-scientific. In South Africa, the official response to HIV/AIDS was also colored by quarrels with foreign pharmaceutical companies. The Mbeki government sponsored virodene, essentially a quack remedy, for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, and did not distribute antiretrovirals through the public health system and for a time even blocked AZT trials. It took years for South Africa to join the scientific mainstream in HIV/AIDS treatment. The disease remains stigmatized despite Nelson Mandela’s public acknowledgement after he had left office that a son had died of the disease.

Dlamini-Zuma was minister of health from 1994 to 1999 and was a close political ally of Thabo Mbeki. When Mbeki became president in 1999, he named her foreign minister. She became probably the most powerful woman in South Africa. She is the ex-wife of the current president Jacob Zuma, but there is a consensus that her political success is not related to her former husband. Following South Africa’s six-month diplomatic campaign, she has been elected as chairperson of the African Union Commission, the chief executive position in the organization. This is seen in the media as a significant diplomatic achievement by the Zuma administration and opens the way for increased South African influence on the continent. The media is also portraying it as an accomplishment for Africa’s women.

Dlamini-Zuma, who is an ANC activist, is a medical doctor trained in South Africa and the U.K. As minister of health, her achievements were numerous: she instituted free medical care for children and achieved progress toward dismantling the apartheid dimensions of the healthcare system.

But her association with and support for Mbeki’s anti-scientific approach to HIV/AIDS is a blot. How to account for it? Part of the answer, I speculate, comes from her close political alliance with Mbeki; part of it from the general predisposition among the ANC to search for “unorthodox” treatments; and partly from the confrontation with foreign pharmaceutical companies that made her particularly open to an “African” cure. (Virodene had been developed at the University of Pretoria.) Whatever the reason, her approach to HIV/AIDS associates her closely with what was Mbeki’s greatest domestic policy failure. And that tempers my enthusiasm for her election as chairperson of the African Union Commission.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Rra Molete

    There were three factors informing Dr. Nkosana-Zuma’s position on the pharmaceutical issue.
    First, “Big Pharma” was viewed as a part of the apartheid health system. The companies are partly to blame as they concentrated on the 15% of the population because they constituted 80% of the market in terms of value. Some, such as J and J saw the need to extend the market to the other 80% but most did not.

    Second, the former Minister was led on this issue by the Office of Deputy President Mbeki. They were influenced by those preaching unorthodox methods and who saw racial elements to the pandemic’s origins.

    Third, the South Africa became the poster child for activists fundamentally opposed to intellectual property rights granted to patent holders. Both the Minister’s Director General and chief medical officer were beholder to the views of such activists as Jamie Love,Carlos Correa and Ellen t’Hoen. Additionally, the Indian pharmaceutical companies sensed an opportunity to fill the gap with pirated versions of Big Pharma products.

    Big Pharma did not help itself by being aggressive, obstinate and
    litigious. A path that caused great damage to the industry’s global image from which it has not recovered.

  • Posted by Steven De Wet

    Oh boy. There goes the neighbourhood. God bless Africa!!

  • Posted by Stanley KHoza

    Africa, has produced and is continuing to produce better leaders, congradulations to Nkosazana Zuma, for her role in the AU. May she take the role and contunue to remain above board and serve the Africans. Her position has openned a way for the next womens in politics and in businesses to be acknoledged on international level.

    078 067 0003

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