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Ambassador reflects on AIDS, closing wealth gap

Ambassador Eric M. Bost did not take the typical route to ambassadorship. Instead of going up through the ranks or having to struggle with the Foreign Services exam, Bost was appointed by President George W. Bush. The President got to know him when he was head of Health and Human Services in Texas, Bush’s home state.

The audience at Tuesday’s College of Education open forum asked tough questions of the ambassador, primarily those focusing on the United States’ efforts on fighting HIV/AIDS in South Africa. HIV/AIDS is one of four key areas the U.S. is working on in South Africa, along with economic development, counter-terrorism and education.

Transition was the theme of Bost’s lecture. South Africa is a nation where many rural youth study on tree stumps, but at the same time, there is a Ferrari and a Rolls Royce dealership close by.

“South Africa has the widest disparity between those who have and those who don’t have in the world,” Bost said during the lecture.

South Africa has the highest per capita income in the continent, but also has 25 percent to 40 percent unemployment. Additionally, he described the nation as one that is “able to send troops and food to other countries, but also doesn’t have one HIV/AIDS-free military regiment.”

Some of South Africa’s accomplishments include a budget surplus and a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council. But last night, HIV/AIDS was the topic on which Bost and his audience spent the most time.

“HIV/AIDS affects every facet of life in South Africa – 32 (percent) to 37 percent of teachers are HIV-positive,” Bost said.

The U.S. will spend $590 million on HIV/AIDS in South Africa this year. Bost gave his take on why HIV/AIDS is so rampant in the country.

“One of the most basic reasons is the fact that women in the country lack choices about having sex with their partner,” he said. “Men go off to the mines and when they’re off working they have sex with their mistress and then they come back and sleep with their wife. They don’t use a condom because they don’t think it’s natural.”

Nearly 22 percent of South Africa’s 43 million citizens are estimated to be HIV-positive, according to data from the CIA World Factbook. South African President Thabo Mbeki has come under fire for his unusual views on HIV. He has denied that it causes AIDS, and has hinted at it being a Western conspiracy.

Bost said he is disappointed by Mbeki’s statements but doesn’t allow them to stop him from doing his job.

“We don’t deal with it. In my opinion, President Mbeki has not provided the type of leadership that we hope, but you can’t spend time wishing for something that didn’t happen, so we go on and do the best job we can,” he said. “If you go back and look at the past five years – there are 300,000 people on (anti-retroviral drugs) now. You can’t stand back and wait for Mbeki to change.”

Bost believes economic investment is fundamental for success in South Africa.

“There are 600 U.S. businesses in South Africa that employ about 100,000 people,” he said. “Investment is so important because I believe in the ripple effect. For people that go to work, they tend to send their kids to school, put money back in the economy, and don’t commit crime.”

Bost said even though apartheid officially ended in 1994 – along with the famous release of Nelson Mandela from his jail cell on Robben Island – the wounds left by apartheid have not fully healed.

“I think when you have a country that’s 13 years away from apartheid, you still see some of the vestiges of racism,” he said. “When I talk to South Africans of color, they still feel that there are issues of racism that they’re continuing to deal with.”

He compared the race relations in his country to that in the U.S.

“Apartheid was so controlling and pervasive that in a township of 750,000 people living in shacks, there was only one road leading in and one road leading out and everyone who lived in the township had to be back before dark (or) they were fined or put in jail,” he said. “The most egregious, in-your-face situation that I have heard is that if a white and black person were both in cars and pulled up to a stoplight and the black person took off before the white person when the light turned green, they ran the risk of being pulled out of the car and being beaten.”

Bost noted how the South African government is dealing with racism through its Black Economic Empowerment initiative.

“It’s an affirmative-action program to get former white-majority-owned businesses to incorporate people of color,” said Bost.

According to Bost, one of the biggest regional issues effecting contemporary South Africa is the genocide in Sudan.

“When you have 200,000 people that have been killed, I think that’s genocide,” he said. “Our concern is what is occurring in the Sudan, and I think it’s horrible that you have that many people murdered, and 4 (million) to 5 million people displaced.”

When his post comes to an end in early 2009, Bost said he hopes to continue working on the international stage, but he’s not ruling out a return to Tampa.

“Coming back to Tampa and being on campus has made me homesick for the States,” he said. “Maybe I’ll find a job in Tampa. I’ll seriously start to think about it sometime next year.”

Christine Gibson can be reached at (813) 974-6299 or