President Thabo Mbeki has catastrophically failed to face up to his South Africa’s greatest challenge. For years, he associated himself with crackpot theories that disputed the demonstrable fact that AIDS was transmitted by a treatable virus. And he suggested that antiretroviral drugs were toxic, and he encouraged useless herbal folk remedies instead.

Now Mbeki has fired one of the few effective AIDS fighters in his administration, Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge.

Ms Madlala-Routledge provided a brief interlude of sanity and seriousness after the health minister fell ill last fall. Over the next nine months, Madlala-Routledge promoted an ambitious but attainable goal of cutting the number of new HIV infections in half and treating 80% of people in need by 2011. But after her boss, the beetroot and garlic advocate, returned to work, that new seriousness was shoved aside. South Africa has the financial resources and the medical talent to successfully take on its HIV/AIDS epidemic. What it lacks

is a president who cares enough about his people’s suffering to provide serious leadership. Only two more years remain in Mbeki’s presidential term. Unless he finally starts listening to sensible advice on AIDS, he will leave a tragic legacy of junk science and unnecessary death.