News 24, Recruits fight 'HIV shut-out', 30 August 2004

Johannesburg - A legal battle is looming between the army and four South Africans who claim they have been shut out of the military because they tested HIV-positive.

It comes at a time when the South African National Defence Forces (SANDF) has embarked on collaborative research with the United States department of defence on the effect of the pandemic on the battle-preparedness of the SA military.

The Aids Law Project (ALP), a local non-governmental organisation, is acting on behalf of three South Africans living with HIV who applied for jobs in the army. They were rejected because of their positive status.

Two of these are combatants who fulfilled all other requirements for the job, including passing fitness and psychometric testing.

They were accepted into the physically demanding course, but then dismissed when their medical report came through.

The other client is a woman who applied to be a chaplain in the defence forces. The ALP claims that the SANDF's rejection of these recruits is discriminatory, and violates the constitutional provisions to equity.

'Excludes those who test positive'

The court action will challenge the South African military on whether human rights or human resources are its priority. This is a question with which defence forces are grappling across southern Africa.

Liesl Gerntholtz, an advocate working for the Aids Law Project, says the army has a de facto policy which requires mandatory testing of new recruits, and excludes those who test positive. She believes this undermines their human rights.

"What I can say is that we have received complaints from clients that they have been tested pre-employment routinely.

"We have documents from the South African mMedical health services of the SANDF that indicate that the protocol that deals with HIV testing says explicitly that if you are sero-positive then you are automatically considered to be medically unfit for employment in the SANDF," she says.

Sam Mkhwanazi, spokesman for South African Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, says all new recruits are obliged to submit to a comprehensive health assessment.

If they fail it, for whatever medical reason, they are not admitted. However, he denies this is tantamount to discrimination.

Must be 100% healthy - SANDF

"We look at eyes, teeth, high blood pressure, for all ailments including HIV/AIDS.

"The media want to give a person with HIV more weight than a person with high blood pressure.

"The bottom line is that the uniformed member must be 100% healthy," he says.

Gerntholtz believes that the extent of the recruit's illness should be the consideration, not whether or not they are HIV positive.

The AIDS Law Project has written a letter to the ministry of defence asking for clarity on their policy, in light of discussions they say are taking place on this issue in the South African National AIDS Council. Sanac was unavailable for comment. - Sapa-IPS

Edited by Iaine Harper




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