01/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The New Obama in South Africa

Today is World AIDS Day. I know, big yawn. Another day devoted to another horrific pandemic and then after feeling terrible -- or not -- we'll all forget about it. But here in South Africa, where I have been traveling the past two days with a group of American and South African bloggers, World AIDS Day resonates particularly hard.

South Africa has one of the highest AIDS rates in the world. Now, the reasons for this travesty are many. Poverty. Lack of education. Cultural stigmas around talking frankly about sex. Macho attitudes toward women. But the main culprit is a single man: former president Thabo Mbeki.

For years Mbkei scoffed at the notion that HIV causes AIDS, refusing to provide anti-AIDS drugs to South Africans. According to a recent Harvard Study, we now know those treatments would have saved 330,000 South African lives. That's not including the 35,000 babies who needlessly contracted the virus from their mothers.

Mbeki's health minister, if you can imagine it, was probably even nuttier. A political crony named Manto Tshabalala-Msimang who promoted the novel idea that the virus could be cured with a cocktail of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic. Oh, and beetroot. For this she understandably earned the nickname "Dr. Beetroot" from some spoil sports in the scientific community.

I guess they thought it was a little like treating cancer with chicken soup.

In response to the Harvard study, Dr. Francois Venter, head of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, had this to say to the Cape Times:

"These people are dead because of the previous health minister and the previous president. It's that simple. We had to lead the response to the epidemic but instead we were the poster-child for 10 years of failed opportunity."

So the disease was allowed to spread in South Africa pretty much unchecked. Today some 5.5 million South Africans -- or roughly one out of every six -- are infected with HIV.

Think about that for a second. One in six. That would mean if I lived in Johannesburg, say, instead of Los Angeles, someone in my extended family would likely have AIDS.

I thought about this on the bus yesterday afternoon on our way in to Capetown, the former Dutch colony built on the windy shores of the Atlantic. Capetown has many things to recommend it: gorgeous scenery, charming architecture, a hip restaurant scene. Woolworths. Though I cannot recommend the modern Mandela Rhodes Hotel. It's like sleeping in a noisy glass indoor mall.

Anyway. On the drive in we also passed an area called Cape Flats, an area of densely crowded tin and cardboard shacks. The place went on for miles and looked like a refugee camp. "Look to your left. There's your hotel," our local driver joked. Literally minutes later we drove by the old colonial hospital where Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first open heart transplant in history. I thought about that too. The paradox of a country that could produce such a medical miracle and such a medical nightmare.

My two young South African blogging friends, Nick Haralambous, who runs about six blogs including one called South Africa Rocks, and Matthew Buckland, who founded one of South Africa's most popular political blogs, both grew up in Johannesburg. And they both told me that the country feels a sense of shame over its AIDS legacy.

But here's another South African miracle. Or it certainly seems like one.

In October this beleaguered country got a new health minister, a former anti-apartheid activist named Barbara Hogan. And you're not going to believe this, she's being called the "new Obama"!

How's that for change South Africans can believe in?

Andrew Warlick, head of the Treatment Action Campaign, an AIDS advocacy group in South Africa, is the one who made the Obama comment in an interview with the Cape Times. Asked about the comparison, he said it was because Hogan had done a lot already after inheriting a "system from hell."

Today at noon Hogan and other government officials asked South Africans to join in a national moment of silence to honor World AIDS Day. Before that the new Obama was going to speak to the nation about AIDS. She hopes to encourage South Africans to talk more openly about the disease. We were on the bus en route to a windmill farm so I didn't hear her speech. Frankly, I wish I had been there instead of going to look at a big white turbine thingy. But I said a little prayer.