Africa News: Zimbabwe, Malaria, AIDS in S. Africa

Recent news out of Africa includes protests against Zimbabwe's government, the latest development in malaria vaccines, and South Africa's most recent efforts on curbing the AIDS epidemic.

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TONY COX, host:

Just when you might have thought things could not get worse in Zimbabwe, the U.S. State Department says it is holding the government personally responsible for attacks against opposition leaders there last week. In a statement released yesterday, the State Department also chided President Robert Mugabe for preventing several victims of the attacks from leaving the country to get medical aid. The incidents are attracting international attention. There's a growing feeling they could bring the Mugabe regime down.

To put things in perspective, NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with NPR's special Africa correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Any gathering of more than two or three people, I think it is, has to be approved by the government. So this was considered a banned meeting. And so the police went on the attack, ending up with at least one death, although I'm getting report at south of Zimbabwe that there were others, but I can't confirm that. And the most serious that we have seen all over the world was the attack on Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of one of the factions of the Movement for Democratic Change. He spent time in the hospital with a possible skull fracture, and this has earned the condemnation of practically the entire world.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

How are people reacting, specifically, in Africa - African leaders to this development?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there's been a lot of criticism of what they are calling muted responses by African leaders. Now, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete flew there for talks with Mugabe. He went on Thursday, and he said that the talks were a great success. But they held a press conference and Kikwete was standing behind Mugabe when he told - responded to the international criticism by saying they could all go hang. So it remains to be seen exactly what Kikwete was talking about when he said it was a great success. When he was pressed about it, he said that was between him and Mugabe.

South Africa has said a little bit more than it usually says. You know, it says that people have to respect people's civil rights. But it hasn't been very vocal in its condemnation of this kind of violence. And the country is really in a terrible situation. Unemployment is something like 80 percent. Inflation is almost 2,000 percent. And people are suffering - the Zimbabweans who have either come here legally or illegally - and most of them are illegal - staged a demonstration in front of the Zimbabwean embassy the other day in Johannesburg. And many of them were so angry, they were saying that were ready to take up arms. Now whether that's just anger talking or whether people really are at the point of being so fed up that they are ready to take up arms, when that kind of talk enters the atmosphere, it's very worrisome.

CHIDEYA: So, with all that's going on in Zimbabwe, what has been the opposition response?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it's really interesting because before this, the Movement for Democratic Change has splintered into two different groups. Tsvangirai was leading one, and one of his former colleagues was leading the other. I think this has brought them together. And they're saying now that Mugabe is bigger than whatever problems that they have. And they have vowed to continue protesting, and they have vowed to continue by all - and they used this word -democratic means to defeat this government.

So, it looks like they're planning to go back to the streets, and that could really bring Zimbabwe to an awful path, because Mugabe has let it be known that he will meet any kind of demonstrations like this, which he accuses the demonstrators are precipitating the violence - with violence, with force.

CHIDEYA: As you know, I have a family in Zimbabwe, and when I came and visited, there was an unofficial exchange rate of ZWD 5,000 to one US dollar. Now, apparently, it's up to ZWD 8,000 to one US dollar, and that illustrates exactly what you're saying about the completely manic inflation rate. But I want to turn to another topic. Speaking of South Africa, you spoke of the exiles in South Africa.

HUNTER-GAULT: South Africa has been roundly criticized, especially by the international community, for not doing enough to stem the increasingly deadly toll that AIDS is taking on the nation. It's believed that one out of four South Africans is HIV positive.

But now, after months of criticism, the government has launched what's being called the most dynamic and comprehensive plan it's ever put out, aimed at managing, at least, the AIDS epidemic.

What they're hoping to do over the next four years is cut new infections by 50 percent. They also are saying that they're - in this new national strategic plan, they're bringing - trying to bring treatment to at least 80 percent of the HIV-infected people. It has to go one more step and get approval from the National AIDS Council before it is official. But, from what I can learn, that's just a matter - it's almost pro forma. The big challenge is that they're going to put in an estimated $3.3 billion, and they hope to put even more.

And people are saying, well, you know, where is this money going to come from? But I think that the critics are pleased because they've been, in the past, saying that the government never had any goals. It never had any timetables. And this plan has goals and timetables. So, you know, everybody's got their fingers crossed, hoping that this will make a difference in a situation that is the most negative, I would say, of anything going on in South African - and the continent, for that matter.

CHIDEYA: Absolutely, and yet, there is another killer of not just adults, but children - malaria. Now there are maybe some good news on that front as well. Why don't you give us a clue?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there is some good news. There was a new low-cost, anti-malarial drug launched in Paris a few days ago. And it is supposed to be one of the most effective combinations of drugs because it combines two drugs. I'm not going to begin to try and tell you what - how to pronounce those, but they are what they call a fixed-dose combination. And they've proven effective in the past in fighting malaria. What's cool about this is that the course of treatment for the new drug consists of just two pills a day for three days for adults, and most importantly, one pill a day for three days for children.

Now malaria kills up to 3 million children in the world, mostly in Africa. They say more than a million children in Africa die from malaria each year, and 3,000 of those are under five. So this - what is also good about it, not only is it effective, but it's low cost. There's no patent on it, so generics can be made from it. And so it really does hold out the problem of a solution to something that has been a greater killer of children than AIDS.

CHIDEYA: Well, Charlayne, it's great to hear about the resourcefulness of people in the face of adversity, and you bring us a lot of really compelling stories. So it's great to end on a positive note. Charlayne, thanks again.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Farai.

COX: Charlayne Hunter-Gault is NPR's special Africa correspondent. She spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya. You can hear Charlayne regularly on NEWS & NOTES in our Africa Update.

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