HIV positive soldiers

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

The BBC's Karen Allen reports on a unit of HIV-positive South African soldiers which is now being allowed to participate in international peacekeeping operations.

MARCO WERMAN: Here's another sign of change in South Africa's approach to the AIDS epidemic. The military is now allowing HIV positive soldiers to be promoted and to serve in foreign deployments. That change comes after the nation's high court overturned a longstanding bend by the South African National Defense Force. The BBC's Southern Africa correspondent, Karen Allen, reports from Johannesburg.

KAREN ALLEN: On the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert, a fighting force is at work. All jets flying above us have been bombing positions on the ground. Some 6,000 members of South Africa's National Defense Force are taking part in Exercise [SOUNDS LIKE] Saboka. It comes just weeks after the military's been forced to review its position in the recruitment, deployment and promotion of HIV positive staff.

LT. GENERAL VJ RAMLAKAN: It's not as if now that the flood gates are open for sick people to be deployed.

ALLEN: Lt. General VJ Ramlakan is the Surgeon General of the South African National Defense Force.

RAMLAKAN: If you are HIV and sick, clearly you will not be in the frontline. If you are physically fit and you're just HIV positive, then your HIV positive status would be minimized as [INDISCERNIBLE].

MERCER: S'kumbuzo Maphumulo is the attorney who brought the test case.

S'KUMBUZO MAPHUMULO: It means that people who are HIV positive in our military, who for instance, are on treatment and have stabilized on treatment, they meet minimum requirements, they will not qualify to be recruited and deployed and promoted which was not the case in the past.

MERCER: It's too early for the troops of the battle school to asses what this means but Helmoed Roemer Heitman, a defense analyst, says the move is a step too far. Though the new rules mean that a HIV positive soldier has to meet the fitness requirements that matches a particular job, he considers it a breach of trust for the ordinary soldier.

HELMOED ROEMER HEITMAN: One of the things the ordinary soldier does demand of his leadership is that we do not expose him to unnecessary risk and what we're doing here is exposing him to unnecessary risk. It's bad enough we send them out to live under harsh conditions and get shot at, now we're putting them in a situation where one of their own comrades could totally inadvertently infect them with a fatal disease.

MERCER: Others argue the risk to fellow soldiers is small and the reality is that many who serve in the South African Defense Force are already HIV positive, whether they know it or not. Studies have found that between twenty five and thirty percent of soldiers are infected with HIV and that most soldiers acquire the disease while on deployment. On beach during his off duty hours, [SOUNDS LIKE] Dumisani Gumbi is being put through a tough fitness regime. He discovered he had the AIDS virus eight years ago and is now on anti-retroviral drugs. He's a platoon sergeant in charge of some thirty six soldiers but his HIV status has hampered his career prospects and chances of doing peace keeping duties overseas.

DUMISANI GUMBI: When we're fighting, when you do peace keeping force, we are not biting the people. But we are just being peace keeping force.

MERCER: So there's no extra [INDISCERNIBLE]?

GUMBI: There's no way. And it means that we are also qualified.

MERCER: For a defense force that's had to adapt since the end of apartheid, it's hard to find soldiers opposed to the change.

SPEAKER: The people I work with, we've had this conversation. It's not really a problem. We'd just like to know, nothing be a secret.

SPEAKER #2: You'd always rather want to know if there's someone amongst you that has, is infected with it because it makes it safer for the rest of the guys.

MERCER: The military may have been forced to open its doors by the courts, but as one of the biggest troop contributing countries with 3,000 peace keepers in Darfur, Congo and Burundi, the South African Defense Force can't afford to lose the experienced men and women in whom it's invested so much. In part, this new AIDS policy is a reflection of that. For The World, I'm Karen Allen in Johannesburg.

WERMAN: We checked in with the U.S. military to learn what its policies are toward people with HIV. The Defense Department spokeswoman tells us that if you're in the armed forces and test positive, you can continue to serve. But if you test positive beforehand, you won't be allowed to join the military. And one more note on this world AIDS day, our colleagues at the BBC have put together an audio slide show you might want to look at. It features posters from across the globe, designed to raise awareness of HIV AIDS. Some are shocking, some are subtle, all of them are worth checking out. That's at