Mail & Guardian, 15 November 2002, SA's seat empty at regional Aids conference

The South African government, especially Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was noticeably absent at the first African regional Aids conference that kicked off in Botswana this week.

Seven South African Cabinet members were invited to the Hands Across the Divide conference initiated and funded by Metropolitan Life to mobilise key players from the region to share experiences on the impact of the HIV epidemic in their countries.

The conference unintentionally encapsulated many aspects of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), despite the HIV/Aids epidemic not being a priority of this initiative.

Representatives from Mozambique, Uganda, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana were invited from various sectors to present their experiences in the fight against the epidemic.

Its main focus was on the threat of HIV/Aids to Nepad.

"The HIV/Aids epidemic, if it is not dealt with, poses a risk for Nepad," said Stephen Kramer, head of Metropolitan Aids Research. Kramer was criticised for focusing on Nepad at the regional Aids conference when President Thabo Mbeki had not addressed the HIV crisis as part of Nepad.

Kramer said Nepad won't succeed because of the effect HIV/Aids has on economic stability and skills retention.

Kramer said that even though HIV/Aids is not a priority in Nepad, it does not mean that the private sector and key players in the HIV/Aids fight cannot drive Nepad visions.

Botswana President Festus Mogae opened the conference with a strong stance on his country's commitment to anti-retroviral therapy and the need for the region to unite against "Africa's number-one enemy".

Mogae said the conference was a unique opportunity for Southern African countries to work together to learn more about their common fight and mobilise multi-sectoral partnerships against the epidemic.

The conference is an attempt to fill the vacuum created by bi-annual international Aids conferences that give Africa a limited platform to share their experiences on the HIV/Aids epidemic.

"The primary reason we decided to hold this conference on managing Aids is to look at best practice across borders. Metropolitan is doing business in many countries in the region and we need to understand the dynamics of HIV in these countries," said Kramer.

"We Africans must wake up and not make excuses. The key is empowering people, not waiting for policy or structures to get in place," said Dr Dickson Opul of the Ugandan Business Coalition.

"We must start producing drugs for Africa by Africans."

The conference also presented the role of traditional healers in HIV/Aids treatment and discussed the negative perceptions perpetuated by Western medicine.

Yahaya Sekagya, a traditional and medical doctor, said the majority of Africans consult traditional healers. He is part of a programme that tries to breach the gap between the two approaches.

"We have to target traditional healers to give them added knowledge [on HIV/Aids] so they can improve their understanding."