Recent reports that President Jacob Zuma has fathered his twentieth child with a woman he is not married to have disturbing implications for the battle against HIV/Aids.
The three basic tenets of HIV prevention, used to great effect in Uganda in the 1990s, is “Abstain”, “Be faithful” and “Use condoms”.
By impregnating a woman he wasn’t married to, it’s clear that President Zuma ignored the ABC of safe sex. In failing to use a condom, he put his wives and other sexual partners at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
As president, Zuma is meant to lead South Africa and set an example. Yet what kind of example is the one he has set in private life?
His actions effectively communicate that it’s fine to sleep around — and without even bothering to use protection. As Business Day pointed out on Thursday, “If he finds it impossible to follow the safe-sex guidelines that the government he leads has been trying to sell to the country’s youth, why should they?”
In a statement released on February 3, Zuma said: “It is mischievous to argue that I have changed or undermined government’s stance on the HIV and Aids campaign. I will not compromise on the campaign. Rather we will intensify our efforts to promote prevention, treatment, research and the fight against the stigma, attached to the epidemic.”
These comments are hugely worrying because they show that the president cannot grasp the impact of his behaviour and the kind of example it sets. The HIV pandemic is one of South Africa’s greatest tragedies and a mammoth challenge that, as a nation, we have to solve. We cannot conquer it without leadership. We cannot fight it without safe sex. If South Africans follow Zuma’s cavalier approach to sex, then our horrifying HIV infection rates will continue and the disease will continue to ravage this country.
The spread of HIV — and its resulting impact on the people who have contracted the virus — has been devastating South Africa for over a decade. I am therefore quite bewildered as to why Zuma would still appear to hold contempt for safe sex. Does a condom ruin his sexual experience? Is it not culturally appropriate or not manly to wear one? Or does the president get a thrill out of playing a game of sexual Russian roulette?
Whatever the reasons, President Zuma’s behaviour is simply inexcusable. The man did not have to become president, but, as the holder of that office, it is time he accept the responsibility that comes with it.
In his statement on the third, he said: “I said during World Aids Day that we must all take personal responsibility for our actions. I have done so. I have done the necessary cultural imperatives in a situation of this nature, for example the formal acknowledgement of paternity and responsibility, including the payment of inhlawulo to the family.”
But the president has not, in fact, taken responsibility for what he has done. He has not, because he has failed to acknowledge that he erred in failing to be faithful and in failing to conduct safe sex.
As a leader, Zuma owes it to South Africa to publicly admit that he has made a mistake and that his behaviour was dangerous and wrong. He must also ensure that in future his sexual behaviour does not contradict the painstaking efforts being made to encourage young South Africans to be loyal to their sexual partners and use protection during sex.
And if President Zuma is unable to do that, he should resign and retreat from public life. That way his sexual life is less likely to endanger the millions who look to their president to set an example.