Time to raise the bar on AlDS and arms
Peter van der Merwe
Published: 01-SEP-03

Between its handling of the Aids pandemic and the terminally corrupt multi-billion dollar arms deal, the South African government continues to give its best impression of a headless chicken.

Now there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel - at least as far as Aids goes, anyway. After years of dithering and farce, the government has made a belated about-turn on its stance regarding anti-retroviral drug treatment for HIV/Aids.

It may be too little, too late. Death rates from the pandemic are rocketing, with delegates at a recent conference lamenting that the country is in the 'death phase' of the epidemic.

Astonishingly, the chief stumbling blocks to a meaningful Aids policy have been none other than the Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and President Thabo Mbeki himself - the very people one would have expected to be jolted into action by a gruesome litany of statistics.

Researchers estimate that five million South Africans - out of a population of 45 million - are stricken with the disease. Some 600 people die each day, and life expectancy has plummeted from 62 years in 1994 to 51 years today.

Tshabalala-Msimang's response has been to expound a diet including African potatoes and garlic as the cure to the disease, while refusing to accept numerous offers of money and drugs from international organisations to fight transmission.

It took intense behind-the-scenes lobbying by a cadre of senior ministers and officials, including former president Nelson Mandela, but the government has finally asked Department of Health 'as matter of urgency' to develop a detailed operational plan on an anti-retroviral treatment programme.

Aids activists aren't holding their breath. Many point out that if the government had shown the same zeal for eradicating Aids as it had for covering up

Aids activists are holding their breath ...

its terminally corrupt arms deal, the country would have been a poster child for Aids prevention.

Instead, the arms deal remains a festering sore on the country's democracy, with nobody in government seemingly willing to tell the truth - least of all Auditor-General Shauket Fakie.

What's more, there are huge question marks hanging over the facts and figures government is using to illustrate the alleged benefits being generated by the arms deal's so-called offset programmes, which require companies that won tenders to supply equipment to re-invest certain percentages of the contract value in South Africa's economy.

In short, it seems that the British Government is not the only one which likes to 'sex up' its reports to meet its own nefarious ends.

Flanked by a beaming Shakie and top defence officials, an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) consultant last month announced that the country had already recovered double the amount it spent in buying arms through industrial offset programmes.

"There is every indication that we are getting good value for money spent," the researcher told the media, saying that projects flowing from the deal have directly created nearly 6,700 jobs. In fact, he said, a condom factory established in the Eastern Cape by German submarine consortium Ferrostaal had created 520 new jobs alone.

It's would be interesting to see how, considering that the factory in question has not yet even been built. In fact, it is the subject of litigation by the architects, quantity surveyors and builders who have not been paid for their preparatory work.

What's more, there are indications that a floriculture and agriculture project - which the trade and industry department claims has generated 1,500 jobs - does not exist either.

"The industry employs only 20,000 people. If there was a project that added 1,500 to total employment, we would have known about it," said a spokesperson for the South African Flower Industry Council.

Government's June report stated that the consortium would also start a steel mill project in Eastern Cape this year. This project, too, has been scrapped.

When Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson visited South Africa in the late 90s, his adviser admitted that offsets are internationally discredited because "they are so open to corruption". When asked why Sweden was then persisting with them as part of its arms deal with South Africa, he gave an illuminating reply: "Lower standards apply in third world countries."

Perhaps it is time for government to start raising the bar.

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