South Africa launches major AIDS campaign


South African President Jacob Zuma announced Sunday that he was HIV-negative as his government rolled out a major AIDS prevention and treatment campaign.

Zuma was criticized in 2006 by AIDS activists and other groups uring his rape trial after he admitted having unprotected extramarital sex with a family friend half his age. He was acquitted of the rape charges.

After he became president last year, opposition leader Helen Zille said his testimony showed he had put the health of his wives at risk. Zuma, 68, has three wives, at least one fiancee and 20 children. He has been married five times; one wife killed herself and another divorced him.

Zuma recently was forced to apologize to the nation after a girlfriend gave birth to their child. He initially brushed aside news reports about the child.

The president’s announcement Sunday as part of the government’s AIDS campaign underscores one sharp difference between Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. At one point, Mbeki denied the link between HIV and AIDS, and he was slow to roll out life-saving antiretroviral medicines to South Africans.

Zuma’s HIV exam was part of a government drive to have 15 million of the country’s 47 million people tested by June 2011. Anyone who visits a government clinic, for any illness and regardless of symptoms, will be offered an HIV test.

“After careful consideration, I have decided to share my results with all South Africans ... to promote openness,” Zuma said, the South African Press Assn. news service reported.

Southern Africa has the highest HIV rate in the world, partly because of its polygamous history. Multiple girlfriends and boyfriends are common.

A massive number of condoms are being distributed as part of the campaign. The number of condoms given out by the government has risen to 1.5 billion this year from 450 million last year, Zuma said.

“We have to work harder ... to make all South Africans understand that people living with HIV/AIDS haven’t committed a crime,” he said. “We have to expand the knowledge and understanding of the epidemic to protect affected individuals and families. The stigma arises from fear, and fear from ignorance.”

Zuma’s comments came as he was convicted by the public protector’s office of violating ethics rules. The agency’s task is to ensure government transparency and accountability.

The public protector said Zuma had violated the executive code of ethics by failing to declare his financial interests within 60 days of taking office. He did so only in March, eight months late, and only after news reports that he had not done so.

The public protector recommended that the report on Zuma’s violation go to the Cabinet and parliament for a decision on any action to be taken.