The South African Army says it is deploying healthy soldiers – irrespective of their HIV status. This after the SA Military Health Service said a better understanding of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) made it possible for the military to safely deploy asymptomatic HIV positive soldiers, thereby boosting the number of troops available for internal and external deployments.
The new policy, announced in December, followed Cabinet approval of the same the previous month. The approach is also in compliance with a 2008 High Court ruling according to which the existing policy prohibition on the recruitment and external deployment of HIV positive members during peacekeeping operations was ruled unconstitutional.
Army chief Lt General Solly Shoke last week told journalists the military has moved away from saying someone is HIV+ and cannot deploy. “We deploy people who are healthy, irrespective of their status. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that you don’t expect me to send someone who is near his death to a place like Sudan … because I think I may be held criminally liable for his death. So we do it in a responsible manner, we send people abroad for deployment who are healthy for that particular deployment, irrespective of their status.
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+ 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.