Opinionista Ian Von Memerty 20 March 2018

The most important news this year did not get a headline

It is a scandal, a shame and a terrible indictment of our press (who are doing so much to reveal the problems of the country) that the change in the greatest crisis in our country, HIV infections, has gone so under-reported.

On 12 March, the Institute for Race Relations released a report about the fall off in new HIV infections. In nine years this has fallen by 39%. New HIV/Aids infections declined countrywide from 437,705 to 266,931 between 2009 and 2016. This news, on an illness which has crippled the lives of more South African families than any other issue, hardly got a mention in the media. It is a scandal, a shame and a terrible indictment of our press (who are doing so much to reveal the problems of the country), that the change in the greatest crisis in our country has gone so under-reported.

HIV/Aids affects the vast majority of South Africans more than anything else that has been covered in the last months. Forget Jacob Zuma and his legal battles. Forget Julius Malema and land grabs in the name of political expediency. Forget Cyril Ramaphosa grappling with the Medusa of ANC graft and corruption. Forget Tom Monyane and Jonas Makwakwa’s SARS affairs. Forget Steinhoff’s race to disaster. Forget Patricia de Lille and Day Zero.

For average South Africans, and let’s be specific that means poor black South Africans, the disaster of HIV/Aids has shaped their lives more than failing education, appalling service delivery, paralysing poverty, and unbridled unemployment.

The country has the largest HIV/Aids epidemic in the world. We have 19% of the global number of people living with HIV/Aids, 15% of new infections and 11% of Aids related deaths. This is a humanitarian, political and social failure of epic proportions.

Over seven million people are living with HIV in South Africa today. (To put that in perspective that is the same as the entire population of Namibia, Botswana, and Lesotho). I am not the world’s best “Googler”, so I have not been able to find out what the financial cost is to the country – but between anti-retroviral treatment, the costs of TB treatment, lost days of productivity and the costs of caring for the dying we cannot be looking at less than tens of billions of Rands per year. Yes, even more than the sewers of SoE’s that drain our national fiscus. I am sure that Mark Heywood who has done such superb work in fighting this human rights abuse has these numbers dripping off his tongue.

That is just the financial cost. The social cost is almost immeasurable. And the ANC has to stand up and take the blame. The fact that our country is worse affected than any other is a stain on our country forever. We are the second largest economy in Africa, with the best infrastructure and communications network on the continent, and it took us 15 years to do what impoverished countries did 10 years ago. And without foreign intervention and local activism this would have been even worse for the country if it had been left to the government.

From Mbeki’s denialism, to Zuma’s infamous “anti Aids” shower after unprotected sex, the ANC leadership has shown a compete disregard for facts and a complete lack of respect for their voters.

The fall off in infection rates is great news! At last it seems we might be catching up to Uganda and other countries in educating our people. But the fact that ‘only’ quarter of a million people were infected with HIV is last year is disgraceful. Disastrous. Unforgivable.

And sadly, I think one of the reasons why everybody is so quiet about this, is because this, the greatest medical, political and social tragedy in our country, is a post-apartheid problem. This is a post-1994 problem, and the only ANC leader who attacked this with impassioned commitment was Madiba when he called this the greatest threat to our nation since apartheid (paraphrasing from many remarks/speeches he made).

This is an abuse that has nothing to do with the past. This is an abuse that could be dealt with now. This is an abuse of every poor voter. This is an abuse of every family who has a member who has suffered or died from this disease.

It is a tragedy that it has taken 20 years to start winning this battle. If this is the rate that we solve our other problems then we are in trouble. This is the best example of how policies fail. In our personality obsessed politics (Can Ramaphosa, Gordhan and Nene save us? Will Floyd Shivambu and Malema send us into a quagmire if distraction? Will Mmusi Maimane and Athol Trollip straddle the crevices of coalition?), we need to be reminded constantly that policy makes the country.

And our HIV/Aids policy has been a tragedy. The Nazis killed six million Jews, gypsies and gays in a hideous act of deliberate genocidal Policy. We in South Africa have over seven million people who now live with a fatal disease, from a lazy blind-folded policy of denial. Apartheid was an active policy of disaster. The disaster we have today is because of an inactive policy of myopia. The one is clearly a moral monstrosity. The other? History will write that judgement.

And in the meantime – let us write the news, our young girls and women in particular are still paying the price! It might be a fact of life, but it is not normal. It is not right! It is not right! It is terribly, horribly wrong! DM

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