Since his rape trial, African National Congress (ANC) Deputy President Jacob Zuma has been badgered to take an HIV test by AIDS groups, writes Akhona Cira in JournAIDS . But he has maintained, and rightly so, that the decision to test is his alone.
But now the race to elect the next ANC president, who will be the ANC presidential candidate in the next presidential election, is on and Zuma is starting a stealthy campaign to gain more popularity.

In a clever move to upstage President Thabo Mbeki, Zuma took a public voluntary AIDS test in his rural home district of Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, on Friday last week. Thousands attended the event, which aimed to encourage people to have an HIV test and know their status. Amid heavily armed guards, Zuma surrendered his finger for blood to be drawn while smiling for the media’s cameras. The Sunday Independent reported:

“A curtain was drawn as Zuma was given the results of his test in private in a mobile clinic. Before being tested, Zuma made a carefully worded speech in which he encouraged young people to abstain from sex until they were older or married. KwaZulu-Natal’s health MEC, Peggy Nkonyeni, was also tested, as were local amakhosi and municipal politicians.”

During his rape trial, Zuma admitted to having sex with an HIV-positive woman without using a condom. The outrage at his blatant disregard for the ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomise) message was comparable to that surrounding ex-Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang at the height of her unpopularity.

However, the media has responded well to Zuma’s HIV test, preferring not to delve into the controversy that such a move might have sparked. Whether this is fair journalism or is just a mark of Zuma succeeding in intimidating the media with his lawsuits, remains to be seen. This is after all just the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a “bloody” battle to secure the presidency.

The Treatment Action Campaign has asked people not to demand that Zuma divulge his HIV status as it is his private business, The Mercury reported:

“The Treatment Action Campaign cautioned those who wanted him to disclose his status from invading his privacy, but encouraged high-profile individuals to take public tests.”

However, Zuma is a public figure and the rights of public figures, especially politicians, to privacy have always been a grey area when it comes to media coverage. Besides, he should disclose his status so as to set an example for millions of South African’s who still fear HIV/AIDS.

Whether or not Zuma is HIV-positive is not the real issue. He enjoys a huge amount of support in the rural areas around Nkandla especially, and for the many people in such areas who are scared to take HIV tests, perhaps Zuma’s move will inspire them to do so. The actions of amakhosi will also go a long way to making people fear testing less. But in the Zulu culture, where exposure and public declaration is held in high esteem (girls go for public virginity testing after all), if their leaders keep their HIV status a secret, very little will have been achieved in the way of de-stigmatising HIV.