JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - In Botswana, one out of every three adults is
HIV-positive or has full-blown AIDS.
In the South African city of Durban, where more than 11,000 delegates will meet Sunday at the start of the 13th biennial world conference on AIDS with no cure yet in sight, people used to spend Saturday afternoons watching football matches.
Now, many spend their weekends at funeral parlours and cemeteries.
In South Africa, two out of every three soldiers are infected.
In Malawi, average life expectancy is down to 37.
"About three years ago, nobody knew of anyone dying of AIDS. Now that people are starting to drop dead, the realisation is dawning," Botsalo Ntuane, executive secretary of Botswana's ruling party, told AFP recently.
That statement starkly indicated the state of denial -- and increase in the number of deaths -- in southern Africa, where most people hide the disease and death certificates give the immediate cause, such as tuberculosis.
The figures, from the UN agency UNAIDS, show that in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, 24.5 million people are infected -- more than 70 percent of the world total of 34.3 million -- and that AIDS has orphaned more than 12 million African children, 95 percent of the world's total.
But it is southern Africa which is bearing the brunt, as the mind-numbing statistics show: in Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho, about one in four adults is infected; In South Africa, Zambia and Namibia and Zambia, about one in five; in Malawi, one in six.
In Zimbabwe, average life-expectancy should be 65; AIDS has slashed that by 26 years -- a Zimbabwean born now can expect to die at the age of 39.
The pandemic is crippling businesses and civil services, with workers dying as they approach senior positions, creating poverty in the countryside, and wrecking education -- Africa's long-term hope -- as those who take AIDS orphans under their wings cannot afford to pay for their education as well as that of their own children. Many teachers are dying, too.
Armed forces are particularly vulnerable -- and particularly likely to spread the disease.
Vigorous education programmes have been slow to get off the ground in southern Africa, though they have been shown to work in other African countries, notably Senegal and Uganda, overcoming taboos and misconceptions.
The cost of the expensive antiretroviral cocktails used in developed countries is beyond the means of governments and individuals in Africa.
South Africa wants to use generic or home-produced retrovirals, but is stumped at the moment by a High Court challenge from pharmaceutical companies.
The 14-nation Southern African Development Community is negotiating reduced prices and assured supplies and training from major companies, but victims continue to die in the meantime.
The reaction of some southern African leaders has flabbergasted the mainstream medical community.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, seeking an "African solution" to the problem, set up an advisory panel in April and appointed among its members dissident scientists who argue that HIV does not cause AIDS, or does not even exist.
President Sam Nujoma of Namibia told a conference in Geneva last month that AIDS was created as a biological weapon and launched by countries he did not name.
South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, called recently on southern African countries to stop considering HIV/AIDS as a "foreign" disease, and to accept that "umthakathi usekhaya", a Zulu expression meaning "the witch is in the home."
"We will not succeed in fighting this disease for as long as we refuse to accept reality. We will continue to perish in even larger numbers," he warned.