Every Saturday morning on the streets around Soweto’s giant cemeteries, the heart-breaking impact of AIDS on South Africa becomes visible.
Countless processions of the dead, and their tormented loved ones, fill the streets. Inside some of the overcrowded graveyards, space beneath thesoil is running out.
In Soweto and across South Africa, no other killer comes close to HIV/Aids. Related illnesses claim an estimated 1,000 lives every day.
Perhaps the optimism emerging from this week’s International Aids Conference in Washington DC is welcomed here more than anywhere else.
The tide is said to be turning, according to meeting medics who talk of an end to the HIV epidemic being within reach.
That dream is made possible by advances in medical science such as the new ‘wonder drug’ Truvada, which was approved in the US last week.
But in South Africa, changing attitudes have been almost as important.
In the past, doctors trying to beat Aids in South Africa have also found themselves fighting the apparent delusion and ignorance of some of thecountry’s politicians.
Former health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, urged those living with HIV to eat beetroot and garlic to combat the illness. Thethen president Thabo Mbeki defied medical consensus by refusing to acknowledge that Aids was caused by a viral infection.
A survey by Harvard University claimed that his policies led to almost 330,000 deaths.
Nowadays, politicians encourage condoms and Aids testing rather than beetroot. Their campaigns have had results.
There is evidence of progressunder the current president Jacob Zuma, who once admitted to showering after sex with a HIV-positive woman thinking it might reduce his risk of becoming infected.
Zuma’s government has devoted far greater resources to treatment of HIV/Aids. The number of new cases of HIV is falling. Around 1.5 million South Africans now receive anti-retrovirals drugs.
But as political changes and medical progress coincide, a new challenge threatens to challenge the impact of the twin breakthroughs: the financial crisis.
President Obama’s administration intends to cut funding for foreign Aids programs next year. The Bush White House had significantly increased spending in countries like South Africa.
Some anti-Aids campaigners fear that global financial woes might prevent scientific breakthroughs from having the impact that they should.