President Jacob Zuma gestures to his supporters at the 54th national conference of the ANC at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg. Picture: REUTERS
To many South Africans, outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma will not leave a legacy his compatriots will look back on with any degree of fondness.

Zuma, they say, will be remembered most for the allegations of corruption that followed him wherever he went, for presiding over the most bloated, underperforming cabinet in the democratic history of the country and for helping to introduce a new word and a new term to the country's lexicon of politics: "tenderpreneurship" and "state capture".

Few will argue he did not dedicate his life to the ANC - to the extent that he made no apologies for seemingly putting the organisation ahead of the country and, indeed, even ahead of the constitution.

And yet, in the end-days of his presidency, Zuma stands accused of being the man who has done most to threaten the existence of Africa's oldest liberation movement.

As it headed into its elective conference, the ANC was struggling - beset by factions which seemed to defy any attempts to find solutions.

If he were to look back, Zuma would realise that he had one major opportunity to stake a claim to be remembered for the right reasons.

It concerned HIV/Aids - and it was an opportunity that fell into his lap.

Long recognised as a master strategist, he grabbed it, and ran with it and in so doing changed the lives of many South Africans.

Zuma was many things that his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, was not. He was the epitome of affability. Mbeki was a grouch. He was laid back. Mbeki was uptight. He could move out his box to take advantage of a political opportunity. Mbeki insisted on doing everything by the book.

Mbeki was an Aids denialist. Zuma an Aids idiot (initially).

Zuma was prepared to learn from his mistakes. Mbeki was not.

“Can a virus cause a syndrome?” Mbeki asked.


“It can't, because a syndrome is a group of diseases resulting from acquired immune deficiency,” he added.

Backed by his health minister, Manto Tshabalala Msimang, Mbeki refused to sanction the use of anti-retrovirals.

This resulted in the deaths of millions of South Africans.

It sparked unprecedented bitterness between the government and a range of NGOs, most notably, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

In an effort to persuade the state to make ARVs available to ordinary South Africans, the TAC turned to the courts for help.

It won.

But the government appealed and the matter went to the Constitutional Court. It also ruled in favour of the TAC.

On July 5, 2002, the Constitutional Court delivered its verdict in the matter between the minister of health and others versus the TAC.

It came as a shock to the government.

“The magnitude of the HIV/Aids challenge facing the country calls for a concerted co-ordinated and co-operative national effort in which government in each of its three spheres and the panoply of resources and skills of civil society are marshalled, inspired and led,” Judge Arthur Chaskalson said.

“This can only be achieved if there is proper communication, especially by government,” he added.

The judge ruled that all HIV-positive women had the right of access to health-care services to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

When Zuma became president, he acknowledged that HIV causes Aids.

This admission ushered in a new era in the response to Aids in South Africa. At last, the doors to proper treatment of HIV/Aids were opened.

Zuma decided to greatly expand the programme of anti-retrovirals to pregnant, HIV-positive women.

In 2017, during his budget vote speech, he noted that in 2009, when he decided to take a completely different tack from that of Mbeki, 2 million women took an HIV/Aids test.

Zuma had to have his arm twisted.

Then, in his budget vote speech this year, Zuma had more good news: he said more than 14 million people had been tested for HIV/Aids in 2016.

“South Africa has the largest HIV treatment programme in the world,” he said, adding that more than 3.8 million people in the public sector were undergoing treatment.

Zuma said that mother-to-child HIV transmission had decreased from 70 000 in 2004.

Due to the very successful prevention of the mother-to-child transmission programme, the figure had dropped to below 6 000.

His claims were backed by Statistics South Africa, which noted that the life expectancy of South Africans had improved from 55 in 2002 to just over 62 now.

Zuma’s actions on Aids - even if this change of attitude was driven by the results of the Constitutional Court ruling - would in normal circumstances have enjoyed wide praise. After all, it probably saved millions of lives.

But his work did not receive the recognition it deserved because of the range of other matters that severely blighted his two terms as president of South Africa.