KGALEMA Motlanthe was yesterday elected South Africa's third head of state since the end of white rule and immediately signalled his country's determination to fight the devastating AIDS epidemic, by demoting the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
South Africa has more HIV-positive people than any other country – six million, including 100,000 civil servants.
It is estimated that 1.5 million South Africans have died of AIDS-related illnesses since the early 1990s, and 1,000 continue to die each day from AIDS.
The toppled state president, Thabo Mbeki, and Dr Tshabalala-Msimang became notorious for their denial of the universal scientific consensus that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus.
Dr Tshabalala-Msimang argued that anti-retroviral drugs, used internationally to delay the onset of full-blown AIDS, were poisons and instead recommended that HIV-positive people consume olive oil, garlic and beetroot.
Mr Motlanthe's appointment of Barbara Hogan, an independent-minded African National Congress (ANC) back-bencher, as his health minister, signals that the new government intends to embrace scientific orthodoxy and to launch a major anti-AIDS campaign.
Ms Hogan, a white South African, who is known to have been appalled by the AIDS denial, joined the then illegal ANC in 1976.
She was imprisoned for ten years for high treason.
Mr Motlanthe, a former trade unionist who was also a political prisoner for a decade, takes over at a time when all South Africa is tense with fears of political and economic chaos.
The deeply divided ANC forced Mr Mbeki to resign last weekend after he lost a bitter power struggle with the party's corruption-tainted leader, Jacob Zuma.
The ANC national executive committee says Mr Motlanthe, 59, will be a caretaker head of state until next May, when Mr Zuma will take over after new parliamentary elections.
But Mr Zuma could yet face trial on charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering and tax evasion leaving Mr Motlanthe to rule as president beyond 2009.