Cabinet has approved a new HIV/AIDS policy for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
Cabinet spokesman Themba Maseko yesterday said the revised Policy on the Health Classification and Selective Deployment of Stable HIV Positive members has been approved.
“The new policy provides for the recruitment and selective deployment of HIV positive persons into the SANDF,” he said.
“This decision marks the culmination of a policy review process that was initiated in 2006 and is in compliance with a 2008 High Court decision that ruled that the existing policy was unconstitutional.
“The old policy excluded HIV positive persons from being recruited and external deployment. The Military Health Services structures will provide the necessary support to SANDF personnel,” he said.
The announcement comes days after a prominent AIDS pressure group praised President Jacob Zuma for ending the “state-supported denial” which had damaged efforts to beat the epidemic.
Reuters last week said the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) said Zuma had ushered in a new era by acknowledging the devastation AIDS inflicts, in a speech he made Thursday.
South Africa has one of the world’s heaviest HIV caseloads and has been accused by activists of dragging its feet on the disease which kills an estimated 1000 people there every day.
At least 5.7 million of South Africa’s 50 million population are infected.
In a speech to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on Wednesday last week, Zuma called for urgent measures to fight AIDS and an end to the huge stigma surrounding it.
“Though we have the largest antiretroviral programme in the world, we are not yet winning this battle. We must come to terms with this reality as South Africans,” he said.
TAC said Zuma had taken an important step in the fight against the disease.
“With this speech state-supported AIDS denialism has been banished. The Treatment Action Campaign welcomes the ushering in of this new era, almost exactly ten years since former President Mbeki made a speech that began the era of state-supported denial,” it said in a statement.
New SANDF policy
The South African Security Forces Union (SASFU) took the SANDF to court in May 2007 regarding its use of HIV testing with regards to employment, deployment, promotions and transfer, saying that the policies discriminated against HIV-positive (HIV+) members.
“Over the years the SANDF has justified its HIV testing policy and its implementation on such grounds as, the military has a duty to protect the Republic, there is a need to keep HIV prevalence low in the military, people living with HIV are medically unsuitable and unable to withstand stress, physical exercise, adverse climatic conditions, etc, foreign deployment conditions are too harsh for people living with HIV, HIV+ members pose a risk to others the need to comply with the United Nations regulations with regard to deployment of peacekeepers,” SASFU said in a statement announcing its court bid.
SASFU was assisted by the AIDS Law Project (ALP), whose head at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mark Heywood, said there was no basis for the assumption that HIV infection in itself rendered a person physically unfit or mentally unstable.
When the matter went to court before Judge Claasen in the Gauteng North (Pretoria) High Court in May last year, the SANDF unexpectedly capitulated on a 14-year-old position and conceded its position was unconstitutional.
The SASFU application was thus made an order of court. The ALP afterwards said the order meant the SANDF could “no longer automatically exclude HIV positive people from recruitment, external deployment and promotion”.
The military was further given six months from May 17 to amend its health classification policy to allow “for individualised health assessments of recruits and current members of the armed forces”.
The deadline – last November – came and went with no policy forthcoming. By September this year SASFU was threatening to have defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu arrested for contempt of court.