The World Leader Who Thought a Shower Prevented HIV

Recent weeks have seen U.S. President Donald Trump muse about injecting disinfectant and Guinean president Alpha Condé tout drinking hot water as ways to defeat coronavirus. In Tanzania, the erratic John Magufuli has said he is ordering a plane full of herbal tonics being brandished by his presidential counterpart in Madagascar as a remedy for the virus. It’s hardly the first time in recent history a world leader prescribed an untested, unproven or outright bizarre cure for a deadly virus.

During his time in office, longtime Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh trumpeted his skills as a healer and forced an herbal concoction he invented on thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS in a bid to cure them; it — or the withholding of proven meds — killed an unknown number of them.

But most shocking is the case of Jacob Zuma, a South African power broker and former deputy president, who was arraigned for rape in December 2005. After the married daughter of a family friend — and African National Congress party comrade — who was HIV-positive accused him of raping her, Zuma confidently asserted that he had taken a shower to minimize the risk of contracting the virus.

Zuma’s utterances were emblematic of the government’s tragic handling of the AIDS epidemic.

During the trial, Zuma denied raping his accuser, claiming the sex was consensual. He also stunned the country by confessing to not using a condom, even though the accuser was a known activist for the rights of people with HIV and Zuma was well aware she had it. Just six months earlier, Zuma had been the country’s deputy president and chair of its National AIDS Council, before being ousted from office for fraud related to an international arms deal. In 2001, the Medical University of Southern Africa, which has since been renamed Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, even awarded him an honorary doctorate.

The comments prompted a backlash from AIDS activists and social workers across the country. “Statements like that can throw years of hard work down the drain,” Vicci Tallis of the Gender AIDS Forum said at the time. Both the trial and Zuma’s comments made international headlines for months, as most of the newspaper cartoons including Madam and Eve, the country’s most successful comic strip, satirized the scandal. 

“His statements were angering and patriarchal, as they would continue to perpetuate stereotypes regarding HIV and AIDS and treatment,” says Mpumi Mathabela, campaign director of Johannesburg-based One in Nine campaign, which was formed to show solidarity with the accuser in Zuma’s case and continues its advocacy to prevent violence against women. Its name is derived from a 2005 South African Medical Research Council finding that only one out of every nine rape survivors report those crimes to police. “Because he had a huge following, one of the concerns was that people would use the excuse of a shower as protection against HIV and this would leave a lot of women vulnerable to getting infected and would make it impossible to negotiate safe sex with their partners and husbands.”


Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at an ANC conference in Johannesburg in 2017.

Source GULSHAN KHAN/AFP via Getty

South Africa had been in the throes of a long-running HIV epidemic and is currently home to a fifth of the population of people infected with HIV globally. In the mid-2000s, 5 million South Africans had HIV — the highest infection rate in the world at the time — and unprotected sex was a common mode of transmission.

The numbers rose exponentially during Nelson Mandela’s tenure as president from 1994-1999 when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s ex-wife, had served as the country’s health minister. Gender-based violence is also rampant in South Africa, where more than 40,000 rapes were recorded in 2018, according to police.

Zuma’s utterances were emblematic of the government’s tragic handling of the AIDS epidemic. It took a 2002 ruling of the country’s Constitutional Court for President Thabo Mbeki, who had earlier appointed Zuma to head the AIDS council, to approve and distribute antiretroviral drugs, which help stop the transmission of HIV from mother to child. Under Mandela, Dlamini-Zuma and then deputy president Mbeki had also supported a quack remedy for HIV/AIDS.

Zuma was eventually acquitted of rape, tested negative for HIV and went on to become president. Cast out of office in 2018, he now awaits a corruption trial for the 1990s arms deal. But the rape trial and his shower comment continue to reverberate today, insists Mathabela.

“The justice system had a chance to show that South Africa will not tolerate violence against women,” she says. “But instead they chose to show us that the system is anti-women, anti-black, anti-poor and that the burden of proof continues to be on the women while perpetrators continue to exist with impunity.”

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