If he were not so prominent, maybe his ignorance about AIDS could be ignored. But Jacob Zuma is No. 2 in the African National Congress - the party of Nelson Mandela - and until recently was No. 2 in the government as well, with the expectation of succeeding the current president, Thabo Mbeki.
Zuma thinks that if you shower after unprotected sex, even sex with someone who is HIV-positive, you have eliminated the risk of acquiring HIV.
He said that in court during his trial for raping a family friend. Calls poured in to AIDS education centers asking if that was all that's needed to avoid the virus - while South Africa suffers one of the highest HIV-infection rates in the world.
Zuma's words were heard 'round the world, in part because of his political prominence and in part because he once headed his country's National AIDS Council. By the way, his boss at the time, President Mbeki, said a few years ago that he did not believe that HIV caused AIDS and did not know anyone who had died of AIDS. Maybe he lives in an even more rarefied world than Zuma, unconnected to the millions of South Africans with AIDS, or the millions more who have died from the disease in its 25-year-long scourge.
Debra Fraser-Howze, who heads the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, returned to New York from South Africa a few days ago. She was still steaming about Zuma's comments and the disservice he did to the cause of AIDS prevention. Because Zuma is so popular as a politician, especially among the Zulus who see him as their historic presidential candidate, she said, "it was such a lost opportunity to educate people in a nation ravaged by AIDS."
"It also points to the fact that we must educate our leadership," she told me. "If leadership is not educated, you leave everybody open to the wrong information and devastating consequences."
Tokes Osubu, executive director of Gay Men of African Descent, also based in New York, added: "It does set back the cause for HIV prevention, certainly in South Africa."
But just as AIDS knows no borders, neither does ignorance. Even in this country, many cling to long-discredited information about how one becomes infected or avoids the virus. Osubu observed that while there has been extensive education in some communities, there still is a lingering notion that AIDS is a disease of "people on the outside of the mainstream, people who are the other: gay men, prostitutes or folks with lax morals." Rather than considering oneself safe if one doesn't fit into particular categories, he said, "the fact is everyone who engages in sex" has some level of risk.
Fraser-Howze is particularly alarmed at the rising rate of HIV infection among black women over age 50 - women who, in many cases, think there's no risk and no need to require a partner to use a condom. And she is concerned that far too many blacks in leadership positions prefer to focus on HIV and AIDS as a giant conspiracy designed to eliminate segments of the population. To them, she says about irresponsible sex, "If you don't protect yourself, it's not genocide - it's suicide."
At a nationally televised town-hall meeting on AIDS in Harlem last month, former President Bill Clinton said that the disease can be eradicated in our lifetimes. First we'll have to eradicate such backward thinking as that of Zuma and his confreres in denial in this country.