Garlic, beetroot nonsense tossed out

A revolution is taking place in South Africa and not many people seem to be taking notice.

A revolution is taking place in South Africa and not many people seem to be taking notice.

It is a revolution so massive, so necessary, that its success might well catapult our country from being a pariah and laughing stock across the world to being a dignified, relevant and respected player.

It is a revolution that is happening way too late, but one must hope that it is not too late to save at least one life.

Over the past three weeks two women leaders have taken the battle against HIV-Aids from the confusion and embarrassment that President Thabo Mbeki and his right-hand woman, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, had turned it into.

Last week these two women finally, after seven years of lies, dissembling, horror and hard-heartedness, spoke the truth.

They said: the government will now speak sense on the matter of HIV-Aids.

They said: the government will now act sensibly on the matter of HIV-Aids.

They said: we will now work with NGOs and other bodies to make an assault on HIV.

Most importantly, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo- Ngcuka and Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge said the most important thing, the one thing this government under Mbeki has failed to say. They said: we hear and feel your pain because we are feeling it too.

Yet this welcome turn of events has largely not been reported in the mainstream press. It is almost as if we have not woken up to the fact that the bunkum that Mbeki and his supporters have spewed these past few years is now history.

I have no doubt that we will win this battle. The one way that we can win this battle is for strong and consistent leadership from above.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni did it and saw his country consistently reduce the rate of HIV infection.

He achieved this with a mere pittance compared with the resources we have here.

From 1986, when Museveni first saw his soldiers begin to die from Aids, his consistent message was: Use condoms. Aids kills. Use condoms.

That message sank in and saved his nation.

Others across the world have followed his example.

In this country, our presidency has shifted from denying that the disease exists to claiming it was a Western conspiracy to saying antiretroviral drugs do not work.

It has been a poor and despicable stance for which Mbeki will forever be held responsible. He has done himself and this country irreparable harm through his attitude and policy confusion.

But now we have these two great women. Last week I felt so proud, so fulfilled, to hear a minister speak so calmly, so sensibly, on this matter.

Madlala-Routledge told a panel discussion at the University of Cape Town on Wednesday that as a country we had been "embarrassed, severely embarrassed" by the stall set up by Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang at the recent international Aids indaba in Toronto, Canada.

You will recall that Tshabalala- Msimang put up a display of garlic, beetroot and lemon as our answer to the perils of HIV and Aids.

Madlala-Routledge disclosed that she had recently lost two cousins to HIV-Aids and congratulated Treatment Action Campaign leader Zackie Achmat for his principled stand on calling for the government to roll out antiretrovirals to those who need them.

"We need as a country to thank him," she said. "He risked his own life so that treatment with antiretrovirals could be made free of charge in our public health facilities."

The day before Madlala-Routledge made her statement Mlambo-Ngcuka had announced that the ineffective South African National Aids Council would be beefed up to ensure that she and other leaders from civil society actually made sure it worked.

She said the aim was to ensure that confusion and mixed messages were removed from the government's messages on Aids.

All this comes weeks after cabinet said that Mlambo- Ngcuka would now be the government's lead spokesman on HIV and Aids.

So what has happened here?

First, Mbeki's wild ideas on HIV-Aids have been defeated in cabinet, and we have to be thankful for that.

He might be a great president on numerous fronts, but he has done untold damage through his strange ideas on HIV-Aids.

Tshabalala-Msimang only stayed on as minister because her boss, Mbeki, fully agreed with what she was doing and saying.

Many people have called for Tshabalala-Msimang to go. Well, they are wrong. She was not the problem. She was doing what her boss wanted to see and hear.

Clearly, new dynamics are at play in the Mbeki cabinet. These dynamics show that ministers are beginning to assert themselves and to demand that sensible policies be put in place and not be dominated by the private views of one man.

Hence the sea of change in the Aids policy.

I hope and pray that the two women now leading this campaign have their hands strengthened.

What they have said and done for the past four or so weeks has been what this country and its people have been begging for over the past eight years.

We have lost too many lives to this monstrous pandemic.

We have lost too many friends and brothers and sisters. Some of us are tired of pointing fingers at Mbeki and his government. A sensible approach has long been needed.

It is now here. Let's make it work.