JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s polygamist president confirmed today that he recently fathered a child with a woman who is not one of his three wives or his fiance, and criticized those who said his actions undermined the country’s campaign against HIV/AIDS.
Political opponents had treated the newspaper report in Johannesburg’s Sunday Times as fact even though President Jacob Zuma’s spokesman had neither confirmed nor denied that the baby girl born in October was Zuma’s child.
Critics said Zuma’s choices sent the wrong message in a country where one-tenth of the population is living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Experts say having multiple, concurrent partners heightens the risk of AIDS.
“It is mischievous to argue that I have changed or undermined government’s stance on the HIV and AIDS campaign,” Zuma said in the statement. “I will not compromise on the campaign. Rather we will intensify our efforts to promote prevention, treatment, research and the fight against the stigma, attached to the epidemic.”
Zuma, who has 19 other children, currently has three wives and is engaged to a fourth woman.
He is popular in South Africa for his personal warmth and populist policies, and some here applaud him for embracing what they see as traditional African values. Polygamy, though, is not widely practiced and is seen by some as old-fashioned — and expensive.
Zuma said had he had acknowledged paternity and provided financial support to the family of Sonono Khoza, the mother of the child born last year. The president called the matter “intensely personal” and appealed for his family’s privacy.
“The media is also in essence questioning the right of the child to exist and fundamentally, her right to life. It is unfortunate that the matter has been handled in this way. I sincerely hope that the media will protect the rights of children,” Zuma said.
South Africa, a nation of about 50 million, has an estimated 5.7 million people infected with HIV, more than any other country.
Zuma has been applauded for turning around AIDS policies after President Thabo Mbeki’s stance was blamed for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. Mbeki questioned whether HIV caused AIDS and his health minister distrusted drugs developed to keep AIDS patients alive, instead promoting garlic and beet treatments.
In contrast, Zuma’s government has set a target of getting 80 percent of those who need AIDS drugs on them by 2011. Zuma has called for earlier and expanded treatment for HIV-positive South Africans, and has urged people to get tested for HIV.
Zuma’s turnaround is all the more remarkable because of his personal history. In 2006, while being tried on charges of raping an HIV-positive family friend, Zuma testified he took a shower after extramarital sex to lower the risk of AIDS. He was acquitted of rape.