Issued by Office of the Deputy President

The Chairman of the Conference
His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini
The Premier of KwaZulu Natal
Government Ministers and Officials
Distinguished Delegates
Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to begin by thanking the organisers of this conference for having chosen our country, and indeed our continent, to host this International AIDS Conference for the first time in its history.

The gravity of the AIDS epidemic precludes any form of celebration, but we are none-the-less hugely grateful to you and to the many other international organisations, that continue to show confidence in our country, and us, by electing to hold such important gatherings here in Durban and elsewhere in our country. This gives hope and encouragement to us.

On behalf of our government and our people, I would like to welcome you all to South Africa. I am confident that your recognition of our country's capabilities will be rewarded by a successful conference that takes the HIV/AIDS struggle a step further.

Ladies and Gentlemen, most of us here are quite familiar with reports which suggest that Sub-Saharan Africa faces one of the highest growth rates in HIV/AIDS infection world-wide. It is fitting, therefore that the conference should, at this point in time, be held on the African continent, particularly in Southern Africa. It provides a great opportunity for us to focus our attention on the epidemic and its impact on this region.

One of the confounding elements of HIV/AIDS has been the stark difference in the manner in which the epidemic manifests itself in the developed world, and in the developing world. Thus it is clear that, in addition to individual risk-taking behaviour, in our country, and perhaps the continent, many other social factors, including poverty, migrancy, gender imbalances and social deprivation, contribute as determinants of the extent and rate of the epidemic.

What this means is that, solutions lie, not in a single approach from a single entity, but rather in a broad response from a range of stakeholders. Fighting a disease that cannot be overcome by medical interventions alone, but whose path is also decided by a range of social factors, makes it that much harder for human society to prevail.

Having said this, it is important to emphasise that our own government's commitment to dealing decisively with HIV/AIDS remains unwavering. We have made our position clear on this issue repeatedly over a number of years.

It is saddening, therefore, to observe that valuable time is being used during this conference for debate on issues that we have never raised or have refuted time and again. Our government does not, and has never, questioned the link between HIV and AIDS. Neither do we say that drugs should not be made available to pregnant women and other people who have contracted the virus.

What we have said repeatedly is that the drugs that have proved so effective in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS in developed countries are very costly for such large-scale intervention in the developing world. We simply do not have the required resources. We have then gone on to question whether there exist other ways to deal with the epidemic that would work better given our situation.

We have taken a conscious decision to go beyond conventional wisdom and to leave no stone unturned in our quest for a permanent solution. We have done this because as government we want to take informed policy decisions on this matter. What we expect from those with the expertise, is for them to provide the answers that will appropriately inform our decision-making processes.

Clearly, without the support of broader society, nationally and internationally, governments cannot by themselves realistically respond to the epidemic successfully. It touches every person and every sphere of society, and thus each sector has to mobilise its resources within its particular arena to address issues of HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support, human rights, education and so on.

Reports suggest that countries that have demonstrated a relatively successful response in the fight against HIV/AIDS have employed a truly multi-sectoral approach, with all government departments and the various sectors of society mounting a visible and sustainable response to the epidemic.

Our own government launched, in October 1998, the Partnership Against AIDS where all South Africans were called upon to "join hands in partnership against AIDS to save our nation." This was our first effort to create meaningful partnerships between government and civil society in our fight against this epidemic.

Since then, many South Africans have committed themselves to action. For some, these activities have involved simple acts such as wearing the red ribbon and talking more openly about the disease, so as to raise awareness amongst those around them. For others, it has involved developing strategies and programmes in the areas of prevention, care and support.

However, there was still the need to have this partnership between government and ordinary members of civil society solidified in a way that enables meaningful interaction and greater co-ordination. Therefore, in January this year, we launched the South African National AIDS Council, which comprises government ministers and senior officials, as well as representatives from sixteen sectors of civil society.

These representatives identify, within their sectors' programs and activities, areas of need, and then collaborate with the relevant government departments or other sectors that are in a position to meet that need. This provides us with a good platform for greater co-ordination between sectors, which is the main goal of the Council - to drive a co-ordinated, multi-sectoral response to HIV/AIDS.

This work is done outside of the normal, day-to-day activities of these men and women, with no remuneration. They are to be commended for their dedication to the fight against HIV/AIDS. They represent just one body of effort, whose existence should never take the place of each individual taking personal action against HIV/AIDS.

We do this because of our belief that our quest to find answers to the vexing questions on this pandemic must happen in tandem, and not in competition with our existing programs.

This epidemic is much more than an issue for scientists alone. It is an issue for the entire society, that encompasses many areas of our lives. Thus, it is important that when your conference puts forward suggested solutions, these should include some thoughts on related social and economic problems.

It is most unfortunate that some people seem incapable, or unwilling, to understand the issues that are being raised by our government and, therefore, miss the opportunity to assist us in finding answers quickly.

People are still not applying their minds to the issues raised by the President on Sunday, choosing instead to cling to pre-conceived criticisms.

While most of the discourse on HIV/AIDS, to date, has centred on the availability and affordability of drugs for its treatment, until recently very little debate and research seem to have taken place on the issue of a vaccine. Vaccines have, in the past, proved to be the most effective interventions in the face of similar human disasters, completely eradicating diseases such as smallpox and polio in many societies.

According to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, to which our own Vaccine Initiative is affiliated, less than 2% of the 20 billion dollars spent on HIV/AIDS goes towards HIV Vaccine research.

I believe that we would not be accused of desperate optimism in suggesting that the time has come for the international scientific community to turn more of their energies towards exploring, more seriously and more vigorously, the possibility of developing a vaccine to end this epidemic once and for all.

How do we explain to an ordinary person that more than twenty years after this disease began to impact on our lives, our accepted solutions only centre on treatment drugs so that little is being done to find a vaccine against the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus?

We are, therefore, happy that there is now beginning to resurface a body of scientists who place greater emphasis on the speedy development of a vaccine.

Our government is currently collaborating with the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative, because we recognise firstly, the need to effect a response to this pandemic from all fronts and secondly, that our unique situation in Africa requires that we move in the direction of a lasting solution.

In the words of one such scientist, this new initiative "creates a new paradigm of public-private partnership, supplementing market forces with a public sector intervention to create the tools needed to end this epidemic".

It is unfortunate that much of the struggle to find a cure for HIV/AIDS rests largely with scientists, where we, as government and civil society groups, can only give support and ask questions seeking clarification.

The reaction of the scientists, therefore, to those of us who will, from time to time, ask questions should be one that seeks to take us on board so that this partnership is strengthened and we can focus our collective energy on the big prize - Winning the war against AIDS.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this conference would not have done all its work if no discussion takes place on issues of awareness, of people living with AIDS, support structures for them and the most distressing issue of orphans. This conference, therefore, ought to take us further on these issues, to give direction as to how we are to handle the expected millions of orphaned children.

We have achieved high levels of awareness in our communities. The challenges that face this conference, upon which its success will be measured are:

· Given the success of the awareness campaign in tandem with a continuing rise in infection rates, what is it that we need to do further to stop the spread of this disease?

· Given the increase in the number of people living with AIDS, what extra measures or programmes are we to put in place to deal with their care and support?

· Given the projected increase in the number of AIDS orphans, and limited resources in many developing countries, what solutions or mechanisms are we going to put in place to address this problem?

· Lastly, given the fact that so many scientists and other experts are gathered here in Durban to discuss this matter, what hope do we give to the world with regard to the possibility of finding a lasting solution to this major problem facing society?

People all over the world have lived for decades with real hopelessness as a result of this disease. It is now time for us to create the space for hope for our people. I trust that this conference will provide the hope that a lasting solution is indeed a possibility.

I thank you.

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