Leader: South Africa must confront the crisis on its doorstep

July 26, 2002

HIV/Aids hangs over southern Africa, threatening to cripple public services, undermine economic growth and - at worst projections - bring a return to life expectancy not experienced since the Stone Age.

Universities can no longer remain detached, restricting themselves to their role in clinical and epidemiological research, and social and economic impact assessment.

Now the epidemic is on their doorstep. Increasingly they must cope with human tragedies such as the administrator at a leading university who was stalked and stabbed - fortunately not fatally - by her lecturer lover when she broke off their relationship after discovering she was HIV positive.

South Africa's Medical Research Council head William Makgoba has been fiercely critical of the South African government's curious position on HIV/Aids. Now confident that the frustrations of recent years are over, he still detects Aids denial in the universities. He will soon see at first hand whether they are dealing with the crisis when he becomes vice-chancellor of the University of Natal in September.

His central role in last week's Canon Collins Trust-organised conference on HIV/Aids and education in southern Africa was timely. Universities, he said, were key to success in fighting Aids. But academics questioned the depth of universities' commitment to their staff, students and communities. One area in which there is scope for universities is in encouraging small-scale community initiatives.

The crisis is as much one for the developed world. It took place in the week UK chancellor Gordon Brown announced the highest levels of spending for 20 years, including a £1 billion annual bilateral programme for Africa.

South Africa's apparently coherent Aids policy may encourage academics in the UK and other richer nations to engage with universities in the region to tackle educational problems, such as training staff to cope with bereavement and with the appalling numbers of Aids orphans who will fight through to higher education as an escape from poverty.

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