By Jon Jeter, Washington Post
Thursday, October 12, 2000

The bumper stickers surfaced this week, bearing a simple message for South African President Thabo Mbeki. "HIV," reads the sticker, "does cause AIDS." If many South Africans seemed willing at first to quietly indulge Mbeki's questioning of what causes AIDS and of the usefulness of widely accepted treatments, their patience seems to have worn thin. As Mbeki continues to declare that AIDS is not caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, his utterances provoke groans of disbelief and protest from even his closest allies.

In the past month, South Africa's clerics, labor unions, the Communist Party and even Mbeki's iconic mentor and predecessor, Nelson Mandela--all of whom were instrumental in the African National Congress's struggle against white minority rule--have forcefully supported the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS and have urged Mbeki to reconsider his refusal to provide life-saving antiretroviral drugs to poor, pregnant women. In a newspaper interview published last month, the 82-year-old Mandela, the country's first democratically elected president who was criticized for rarely addressing South Africa's AIDS crisis in his five years in office, warned Mbeki that the country could probably not afford his intellectual roamings. "I would like to be careful, because for people in our position, when you take a stand, you might find that established principles are undermined, sometimes without scientific backing," Mandela said.

South African newspapers, which initially hesitated to criticize Mbeki, now publish stories almost daily that knock his position. "Hypocrite," declared a headline last weekend in the Star, a Johannesburg daily, above a story on how ANC ministers and legislators had refused to offer antiretroviral drugs to poor AIDS patients while the officials' taxpayer-financed insurance plan made the same drugs available to them. "Mbeki fingers CIA in AIDS conspiracy," said another story, reporting that the president suggested that the United States and pharmaceutical companies were part of an international effort to discredit him for questioning conventional methods of treating HIV. Mbeki's office has refused to comment on either issue, and his previous attempts to clarify his position have not gone over well. A recent poll shows that more that 82 percent of all South Africans believe that HIV causes AIDS. "He's isolated himself entirely now," said Mark Colvin, acting director of the Medical Research Council, a nonprofit organization that has been critical of government policies on AIDS.

Mbeki's standing at home and abroad is, among other things, important to the United States, which considers him a key political partner in Africa. But even under growing pressure, he has not budged, notably refusing to allow the government to administer such antiretroviral drugs as AZT and nevirapene, which have been used successfully in the West to treat AIDS patients and reduce the risk of mother-to-child infection. An estimated 10 percent of South Africa's 40 million people are infected with HIV and researchers estimate that 5,000 babies are born with the disease each month. Speaking to parliament last month, the president acknowledged that HIV is one of several factors, including poverty, that could lead to AIDS. Still, he insisted, "a virus cannot cause a syndrome," referring to the disease by its full name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

In letters that Mbeki wrote to an opposition politician this year and a South African newspaper's account of a political meeting attended by Mbeki last month, the roots of his misgivings about AIDS clearly go beyond scientific data. Exiled for 30 years by the white minority's apartheid government while his father was imprisoned with Mandela for their political activities with the ANC, Mbeki is profoundly distrustful of the West and acutely sensitive to stereotyping of Africans and blacks. According to the Mail and Guardian newspaper, Mbeki told an ANC parliamentary caucus that the United States and pharmaceutical companies have conspired to establish a false link between HIV and AIDS to promote the sales of antiretroviral drugs. He urged party officials to brush up on the issue to prepare for an intensified propaganda campaign by the CIA to undermine Mbeki's credibility, and he accused an activist group that has been critical of the government of taking money from drug companies.

In letters written this year to Tony Leon, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Mbeki bristled at the connections made between AIDS and Africa. "You may . . . be unaware of the desperate attempt made by some scientists in the past to blame HIV/AIDS on Africans even at a time when the United States was the (epicenter) of reported deaths from AIDS. . . . I accept that it may be that you do not understand the significance of this and the message it communicates to Africans," Mbeki wrote in a letter that Leon released last week.

"The president has dug a huge hole for himself," said Udo Schuklenk, a professor of bioethics. "Unfortunately, he's sacrificed the lives of babies all for some misguided notion of solidarity."

2000 The Washington Post Company

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