Officials say tomorrow's launch in Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg, shows the government fulfilling a pledge to make ARVs available in South Africa – the country most battered by HIV/AIDS with some 5.3 million of its 45 million people infected.

But as Gauteng doctors prepare for desperate HIV patients seeking treatment, opposition leaders have accused President Thabo Mbeki's government of using the roll-out to win votes ahead of the April 14 general election.

"We are entitled to ask: what took you so long?" opposition Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon said at one campaign rally. "We are entitled to ask: why do it 14 days before an election?"
Mbeki's ruling African National Congress (ANC), which is expected to score a solid victory in the April polls, has dismissed the accusations as an opposition attempt to "scavenge votes" from a frightened electorate.

Gauteng is among the first of South Africa's nine provinces to introduce ARVs after the government decided last year to drop its opposition to the drugs and launch a national treatment programme.

Western Cape province around Cape Town began its own plan earlier in the year, and other provinces are expected to follow suit in coming weeks as the government tenders with pharmaceutical companies for huge supplies of the drugs.

Nationally officials say 50,000 South Africans could be on ARVs by the end of the year, rising to as many as 1.4 million by 2009 at a total cost of some 4.4 billion rand ($700 million).

The long-awaited treatment comes amid estimates that some 600 South Africans die of AIDS each day. AIDS activists, who pushed the government to provide ARVs, have hailed Gauteng's plan but worry Mbeki's government is still not committed to the drugs – which officials have in the past labelled expensive, dangerous and difficult to take.