Faulty condoms scandal rocks South Africa

By S. Predrag, ivan@harare.iafrica.com

Cape Town, March'99 -- It was the South African prostitutes who first started to complain, accusing the state of importing faulty condoms. Nearly one quarter of the items in question did not hold up to a "test" in Cape Town, but the real scandal broke out when it was discovered that the quality of most of the condoms was below international standards, that they were, in actual fact, rejects.

South Africa recently returned up to four million Asian condoms, mainly imported from India, when a check showed them to be of inferior quality.

Condoms are especially important in a country fighting the "plague of the 20th century" - Aids. Over four hundred people die every day in South Africa, and the number of new cases of HIV infections is estimated to be about 1600 daily!

Already, an inquiry has established that the Ministry of Health is not implementing adequate control measures during the importation of condoms, especially from certain Asian countries.

According to the South African media, state inspectors visit the manufacturers abroad once a year, look at a few samples, and then order millions of condoms!

The Ministry of Health is the main importer of condoms - they are responsible for 95 percent of the total business - and, therefore, most of the blame for the current fiasco has been laid at their doorstep.

It is also possible that certain buyers may have been guilty of taking bribes to overlook the inferior quality of the products in question.

In the meantime, the South African Vice-President, Thabo Mbeki, who is tipped to take over from Nelson Mandela as President in June this year, has publicly criticized certain irresponsible ANC (African National Congress) officials.

Mbeki has accused some ANC officials of fighting for office, not to serve the people, but to "fill their own pockets".

This scandal surfaced just a week or two after Thabo Mbeki warned the nation that, "We face the danger that half of our youth will not reach adulthood..."

"Our campaign or partnership against AIDS, aimed at incorporating into our society a culture of safe sex, should be stepped up."

While urging everyone, especially the youth to act responsibly in their relationships, Mbeki underscored that, "One of the most effective ways of stopping the spread of HIV-AIDS is to use a condom."

Mandela's successor admitted that, "For too long we have closed our eyes as a nation..." to the danger of AIDS.

In South Africa, Zimbabwe, and a number of other African countries, most of the population does not like to discuss AIDS which is considered, especially in the rural areas, to be a "family or even tribal embarrassment."

A volunteer of the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, Ms Gugu Dlamini, was recently lynched by a mob after she publicly disclosed that she was HIV-positive.

In a letter addressed to Thabo Mbeki, the joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS and WHO chief, Peter Piot condemned the killing of Ms Dlamini saying that she was one of the many unsung heroines of the struggle against HIV.

"Her death reminds us how stigmatizing the disease AIDS still is, and how much courage it takes for people with HIV to be open about their condition," he added.

Most of the sufferers are ostracized by their friends, even families, and often lose their jobs.

South Africa is rapidly becoming one of the most affected countries on this continent where at least 22 million out of a total of 33 million people are HIV positive.

Botswana and Zimbabwe have the highest HIV rates with 24 percent and 25 percent (respectively) of people, aged between 15 and 49, living with HIV or AIDS.

The Zimbabwean Minister of Health, Dr Timothy Stamps, a front-liner in the battle against AIDS, is well-known for surprising guests at official banquets by offering them condoms instead of his business cards.

The same minister, who once shaved his head and sold his hair in an auction to raise money for the campaign against AIDS, has especially criticised some "nyangas" - traditional healers and witch doctors - who claim they are able to cure AIDS.

In the last couple of years there has been an increase in the number of cases of rape of under-aged girls, in Zimbabwe and some other African countries, because certain irresponsible traditional healers claimed that sex with virgins can "cure AIDS."

Even professional doctors have gotten on this bandwagon- as in the case of Kenyan Professor Arthur Obel, who until recently claimed that he had managed to cure around 500 AIDS patients in Nairobi, using his "Pearl Omega" invention.

A similar case is still causing trouble in South Africa, a country with close to 50 000 newly-infected HIV patients every month. Professor Olga Visser and a group of scientists from Pretoria University claimed that their "Virodin - P058" was "an effective cure for AIDS."

But, the South African Medical Control Council has forbidden clinical experiments on human beings with "Virodin" because it contains Dimethylfor-mamide, described by medical experts as an "industrial solvent" which is detrimental to the liver and kidneys.

The future looks rather bleak for Zimbabwe and a dozen other African countries most affected by AIDS because it is believed that nearly every third pregnant woman is infected with this deadly disease.

Such is the case even in Zimbabwe, although it was among the first countries on this continent to introduce compulsory blood-screening and, for several years now, has been conducting a massive anti-AIDS campaign.

Every week, on average, 700 people die in the hospitals alone in Zimbabwe. In Harare, it is officially estimated that Zimbabwe will enter the 21st century with at least 600 000 orphans, whose parents have died of AIDS.

In South Africa, the daily average of people dying of AIDS and its related diseases is already over 400, and it is believed that the figure for the southern African region is around 5500 per day.

The life expectancy of people in many sub-Saharan African countries is rapidly decreasing and the grim forecast is that people living in the most affected coutries will live on average just 47 years, or 16 years less than the present average.

By 2005, it is expected that about six out of 50 million South Africans will be HIV-positive, there will be close to half a million AIDS deaths that year, and close to one million AIDS orphans. This means double compared with the country's present three million HIV-infected people.

The world's top health experts have, to date, only succeeded in extending the lives of fully-blown AIDS patients by strengthening the patient's natural immunity. However, such medications can cost between 12 000 and 15 000 US dollars per annum.

In many African countries, the governments can only afford to spend 30 to 40 US dollars (or even less) per capita, for medicines - anually. It now seems that Africa's main hope is that the years to come will bring not only a real cure, but also a vaccine against AIDS.

"The worst is still to come in southern Africa...The region is facing human disaster on a scale it has never seen before," Dr Peter Piot warned recently.

In the meantime, it appears that foreign tourists and other visitors to South Africa and the other countries of this region will have to pack not only their clothes, but condoms as well, if they want to enjoy "safe" sex. 

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