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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 19:50 GMT 20:50 UK
Mbeki stirs up Aids controversy
By Verity Murphy
BBC News Online

Despite the fact that South Africa is home to more people living with HIV that any other country in the world its President Thabo Mbeki denies knowing anyone affected by the disease.

Thabo Mbeki
Mbeki's stance on Aids has long been controversial
On Friday Mr Mbeki's spokesperson Bheki Khumalo reportedly confirmed that the president had made the controversial remark in an interview with the Washington Post in New York this week.

"Personally, I don't know anybody who has died of Aids," Mr Mbeki said, adding when asked whether he knew anyone with HIV, "I really, honestly don't".

The statement has been sharply criticised by opposition politicians and Aids activists alike who say Mr Mbeki is "living in his own world".

If it is true that the president said he knows no-one who has died of Aids then he needs to come and meet some real South Africans
Xolani Kunene of Treatment Action Campaign

"As usual it looks like Mr Mbeki is not living in the real South Africa... As president Mr Mbeki is the first citizen of South Africa, so he should be aware of this crisis," Xolani Kunene of Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a South African organisation lobbying the government for affordable treatment for HIV and Aids victims, told BBC News Online.

"We estimate that 600 South Africans are dying of Aids-related illness every day."

"If it is true that the president said he knows no-one who has died of Aids then he needs to come and meet some real South Africans, read the newspapers, visit sufferers and campaign groups like our own - we can assist him to see the problem," he added.

Rumour mill

Mr Mbeki's stance on Aids has been the subject of contention before - he has long maintained that there is no link between Aids and HIV, and this latest remark has raised eyebrows once more.

Phakamile
There were unconfirmed rumours the virus killed Mbeki's spokesman

Many think it inconceivable that with one in 10 South Africans infected with HIV the president could not personally know any sufferers.

In the past there have been rumours that members of his staff and associates died as a result of the virus.

Phakamile "Parks" Mankahlana, the presidential spokesman for both Nelson Mandela and Mr Mbeki, died in 2000 from what the presidential office described as a "long illness".

His premature death at the age of 36 led to intense speculation that the illness was Aids-related - although neither his family nor the authorities would say.

Drugs controversy

"There were rumours, but these cannot be confirmed," said Mr Kunene.

Facts and figures on the impact of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa

"The same was true of ANC member Peter Mokaba - there were lots of rumours that he died of Aids, but the authorities denied this saying that he had simply been ill for a long time and then died," he added.

Mokaba, a fiery leader of the South African freedom struggle best known for his notorious anti-apartheid slogan "kill the Boer, kill the farmer" died in June 2002 from a respiratory illness which had first appeared three years earlier.

Many South Africans believed he suffered from Aids - a claim Mokaba vehemently denied.

As a politician Mokaba denied the existence of Aids and claimed that Aids anti-retroviral drugs were in fact "poison" that had no medicinal benefit.

Sufferer's shame

HIV/Aids still carries a stigma in South Africa where public ignorance about the estimated five million infected people remains.

HIV positive South African baby
One in 10 South Africans are HIV positive

TAC says that the shame associated with having the disease is slowly ebbing away, but that the country still needs high profile figures in government and the media who are suffering from the disease to come out and admit it.

"But this doesn't really happen - of course there is a privacy issue, but also people think 'why should I bother?' as there is no benefit to revealing that you have the disease."

"Saying you have HIV does not give you access to free drugs and treatment - it is not like saying you have diabetes, then you get packed off to the hospital for immediate free beneficial treatment," Mr Kunene added.

Diversion tactic

Opposition politicians have been quick to leap on Mr Mbeki's reported comments, with a statement from the Independent Democrats branding him a "dissident".

"Thabo Mbeki's interview with the Washington Post (if it is proven to be correct) has embarrassed the nation of South Africa," the statement said.


"Mbeki's statement proves that he is a dissident who believes that the HIV virus doesn't cause Aids... In the face of the economic evidence that South Africa is subjected to as a result of the HIV virus, it is a shame to think that the country is run by a dissident."

However, TAC say that some of Mr Mbeki's seeming lack of awareness about the plight of Aids sufferers may be a smokescreen.

"He may be trying to divert attention from what the government really needs to do to tackle this crisis. The deadline for the health minister to come up with a plan to deal with the disease is the end of the month and it looks like the plan will be delayed," Mr Kunene said.

"If Mr Mbeki comes out with a statement like this then it diverts the whole machine and instead we all run around addressing these latest comments."




SEE ALSO:
UN studies Aids impact on Africa
17 Sep 03  |  Africa
SA women 'claim rape for drugs'
28 Aug 03  |  Africa


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