ANC leaders challenged to admit their HIV status

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The Independent Online

Three high-ranking officials in the South African government are HIV-positive and have a moral duty to acknowledge their status publicly and help banish the stigma over the virus, Aids activists in Johannesburg said yesterday.

Three high-ranking officials in the South African government are HIV-positive and have a moral duty to acknowledge their status publicly and help banish the stigma over the virus, Aids activists in Johannesburg said yesterday.

The revelation that three as yet unnamed political figures, who are close to President Thabo Mbeki, have tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus will put pressure on the African National Congress (ANC) to spell out what caused the death of Parks Mankahlana, 36, the presidential spokesman.

Mr Mankahlana, who was Nelson Mandela's spokesman from 1994, joined Mr Mbeki's office last year and died on Thursday from what was described by the ANC as "a long illness". Even though the public has not been told that Mr Mankahlana succumbed to an Aids-related illness, few people in the upper echelons of the ANC make a secret of it.

Mr Mankahlana, by virtue of having to defend President Mbeki's views, was at the forefront of the Aids debate in South Africa - one of the worst affected countries in the world, but among the slowest to respond to the crisis. At least 10 per cent of the country's 43 million people are said to be infected and the UN recently estimated that up to half of all 15-year-olds could expect to die from an Aids-related illness.

Mark Heywood, the head of the Aids law project at the Treatment Action Campaign, said: "We know for a fact that three very senior government officials are living with HIV. It is very important for senior officials to be open about their HIV status. When a young promising individual dies at 36, information about his cause of death can have an impact on public understanding of the danger HIV really represents."

Nat Serache, an ANC spokesman, said Mr Mankahlana's cause of death was a "family matter" and even though the party has a policy of openness about HIV, "we do not want to interfere."

Mr Heywood claimed that South Africans with the virus were probably worse off now than before President Mbeki and Mr Mankahlana raised doubts earlier this year about whether HIV leads to Aids. "The questions he has raised have created uncertainty among public figures over whether to be open," he said.

Even though most South Africans must by now know half-a-dozen people who have died from Aids illnesses, these are still referred to merely as "TB+", pneumonia or "the virus".

In a bid to put pressure on the government, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, announced last month that all his church's bishops would take HIV tests. Similarly, the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper asked all South African cabinet ministers to reveal their HIV status. All refused.

President Mbeki, as recently as last Wednesday, repeated his doubts over the causal link between HIV and Aids. He said he believes the human immune system can be weakened by many things, among them poverty. At the heart of his argument, which the late Mr Mankahlana was crucial to propagating, is the theory that drug companies promote the HIV-Aids link because it helps sales of so-called antiretrovirals - medicines which slow the progression of HIV or block transmission through rape or from mother to child.

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