S. Africa's Mbeki won't budge on AIDS policy

Rising health crisis of disease has come to define presidency

November 30, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRETORIA, South Africa - The faculty of South Africa's top university is demanding that he declare AIDS a national emergency. Activists are suing to force his government to provide mothers and babies with life-saving anti-AIDS drugs. And a new United Nations study confirms that his country has more AIDS cases than anywhere in the world.

But South African President Thabo Mbeki refused yesterday to budge on his country's approach to its mounting health crisis. Will he consider declaring AIDS a national emergency? Mbeki politely said no.

"We have a policy. We've got a program," Mbeki said in a rare meeting with foreign journalists. "I don't think there is any reason for us to change that policy or program. I think we should continue doing what we are doing."

His government's actions have failed to meet the needs of more than 4.7 million South Africans who have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to many health experts. The government, citing concerns that the medications may be toxic, has no program to provide anti-AIDS drugs to the population. Mbeki also still questions the well-established link between HIV and AIDS, arguing that the disease is caused a host of poverty-related factors.

When Mbeki entered office two years ago, he expressed grand hopes for the African continent. The pipe-smoking leader often speaks of helping lead an "African Renaissance," an era of peace and prosperity that would rival the glory days of the continent's ancient trading capitals.

But the 59-year-old leader's aspirations are hampered by the prevalence of AIDS, which may kill 7 million South Africans by 2010, according to a recent study by South Africa's Medical Research Council. AIDS has come to define his presidency. And protests against his AIDS policies, including objections by members of his own political party, are increasing.

Mbeki, wearing a crisp blue suit, appeared defensive when asked about AIDS and reluctant to be pulled into discussions on the disease.

He quickly rejected a suggestion yesterday that he take an AIDS test - a publicity ploy used by other political leaders to encourage people to get tested. "I don't think we should be playing meaningless games," he said. "I don't see how that is going to help us solve this problem."

A few hours before his news conference, members of the University of Witwatersrand's Health Sciences faculty challenged the president to change his views on AIDS, asking that he state publicly that HIV causes AIDS and that he take other steps to confront the crisis.

"We cannot afford to be overwhelmed into a state of nonaction and must respond to this crisis with energetic national commitment, even in the face of competing budgetary priorities," said a statement released by the faculty of the Johannesburg-based university.

The faculty's call comes as members of Treatment Action Campaign, a South African AIDS activist group, await a court ruling in a lawsuit to force the government to provide anti-AIDS drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women, to prevent them from passing the disease on to their infants. More than 70,000 HIV-positive babies are born annually in South Africa. This week the group argued in court that if the government supplied a drug called Nevirapine, it could save half of those babies.

The government has maintained that the drug is too expensive and may be toxic. Although South African authorities have already approved Nevirapine for use, the government has chosen to run a two-year pilot program to test the drug's effectiveness rather than make it widely available, leaving thousands of impoverished mothers without the option of using the medicine.

"There are all sorts of questions," Mbeki said yesterday. "Let's have a look at whether we have the capacity to dispense it in the public health system."

A decision in the court case is expected before Christmas.

By any measure, this has been a difficult year for the president. In April, three prominent black South African businessmen and African National Congress members were accused of planning to unseat him as party leader. Nothing came of the accusations, which critics claim were invented by Mbeki and his supporters to intimidate potential political challengers before general elections in 2004.

Mbeki also is routinely criticized for not speaking out against Zimbabwe's President Robert G. Mugabe. Mugabe is attempting to tighten his grip on power before presidential elections early next year. His government has sponsored illegal seizures of white-owned farms by landless blacks, and stands accused of encouraging widespread political violence against opposition party members.

Yesterday, Mbeki offered one of his strongest statements to date on political conditions there: "Clearly in a situation where people get disenfranchised and get beaten up so they don't act according to their political convictions - obviously there can't be free elections in situations like that."

Mbeki has won praise from financial experts for reducing the national budget deficit, reining in inflation and opening up the country's markets. But thousands of jobs have been lost, foreign investment has failed to grow as fast as the government hoped and the value of the country's currency, the rand, has dropped to new lows.

These problems do not necessarily pose a serious threat to Mbeki's support within the African National Congress.

"The political tradition in the ANC is that you don't question leadership," said Louise Vincent, a professor of political studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. "The whole notion within the ANC of a popular democracy is a joke."

If there is one issue that may pose a threat to Mbeki's political future, it would be AIDS. "A lot would have to happen for them to question [Mbeki]," she said. "At the same time, there is a lot happening. People are dying."

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