AIDS Decimates South Africa's Poorest

AIDS virus
In Gamalakhe, South Africa, a choir sings.

"Lord, show me heaven after my pain."

But, as CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, many Africans wonder whether, instead, God is punishing them with the greatest plague of modern times: AIDS.

Every four seconds HIV infects someone new here. There is a deathbed, sometimes even two, in almost every house. These people are victims of a virus that flourishes among the poor who can't afford expensive foreign drugs and of African governments who have failed to tackle or even acknowledge the epidemic.

AIDS economist Chris Desmond blames rich countries like the United States for failing to share their wealth.

"Providing economic goods and services to the developed world, supporting their wealth and continuing to support their lifestyle is causing our people to become ill and die," he says.

One of the cruelest truths of the AIDS epidemic is that it attacks people in the prime of life. Many of them are young parents, and their children are left orphaned in the care of those least able to look after them.

At 78 and 63, the Ndovella grandparents are mother and father again; this time to their orphaned grandchildren. Four of the Ndovella's own adult sons and daughters have died of AIDS.

Now, a tiny old age pension barely covers food for the family, and there's no money for school, so the children stay home and do chores. Any hope they had of learning a skill or getting a decent job died with their parents.

Just up the road from the Ndovella's, social worker Virginia Nzama snaps a portrait of the Seseng family before one-year-old Leonard, who is HIV positive, gets too ill.

The children's mother died just three weeks ago.

When 16-year-old Siphiwe is asked if his mother told him she was HIV positive, Siphiwe says, "no, but I guessed because at school we learn about HIV."

The precious family photos and mementos will be kept safe inside memory boxes.

AIDS experts say the Johannesburg Earth Summit, some 400 miles away, will only be a success if it can guarantee children like Siphiwe a future beyond their tragic past.