Announcing the landmark decision on Friday, the government said the health ministry has been instructed to develop a detailed operation plan so that the drug could be made available to those who need it on an urgent basis.

But the government decision came with a rider as it insisted that not everyone who is infected with HIV would need the anti-retroviral treatment.

“Those who are infected but have not as yet progressed to an advanced stage of AIDS can lead a normal life through proper nutrition, healthy lifestyles and treatment of opportunistic infections,” the government said in a statement.

Nevertheless the decision marked a major concession by the South African government, that so long had steadfastly refused to make anti-retroviral drugs available to the country’s HIV-positive population.

AIDS crisis

With an estimated five million people in the country infected with the HIV virus, AIDS activists have hitherto been very critical of the South African government for not doing enough to fight the epidemic.

But on Friday, the government said specialists from the Clinton Foundation Aids Initiative set up by the former US president will help to draw up a plan to make the drug available.

“It is expected that this detailed work would be completed by the end of September,” its statement said.

'The government said the health ministry has been instructed to develop a detailed operation plan so that the drug could be made available to those who need it on an urgent basis'

“The government shares the impatience of many South Africans on the need to strengthen the nation’s armoury in the fight against AIDS,” the statement added.

The government decision is expected to help assuage the agitated AIDS campaigners.

The government took a barrage of criticism at the recently concluded four-day AIDS conference in the east coast city of Durban as activists, church leaders and the media spoke out against its failure to roll out a national treatment plan.

Twenty percent of South African adults are HIV-positive and the country has 660,000 AIDS orphans.

The anti-retroviral drug is also known to cut down mother-to-child transmission of HIV.