Scorned Mbeki forced to reverse Aids drug policy

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The Independent Online

Thousands of HIV-positive South Africans are to be given access to Aids drugs, amid a startling U-turn by their President, Thabo Mbeki, whose views on Aids have earned him derision at home and abroad. But many observers, backed yesterday by a new opinion poll, believe the reputation of Nelson Mandela's successor may never recover.

Thousands of HIV-positive South Africans are to be given access to Aids drugs, amid a startling U-turn by their President, Thabo Mbeki, whose views on Aids have earned him derision at home and abroad. But many observers, backed yesterday by a new opinion poll, believe the reputation of Nelson Mandela's successor may never recover.

In what amounts to a humiliating blow to the African National Congress (ANC) as a liberation party, only 50 per cent of respondents in an Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) survey said they approved of the job President Mbeki had done since he took over in June 1999. As recently as May this year, 71 per cent thought he was doing well.

Central to his popularity decline is rising unemployment but also, many believe, his loss of stature internationally. While demanding a voice as a regional leader, he has failed to condemn government-orchestrated violence in Zimbabwe, funked peace-broking in the Democratic Republic of Congo andmade himself a laughing stock for suggesting that HIV may not lead to Aids.

A US diplomat said: "In Washington, jaws are on the floor at some of the stuff he has said or is supposed to have said about Aids. Recently, when the White House has raised the issue in phone calls, Mbeki's aides have changed the subject.'' European governments are equally at a loss; one diplomat, referring to President Mbeki as "Stalinist'', went as far as to suggest he had used his unorthodox views on Aids to test the loyalty of his entourage.

The good news - for the 50 per cent of South African teenagers who, the United Nations says, will die from Aids-related illnesses - is that it now looks as though their government will no longer stand in the way of their gaining anti-retroviral drugs.

This week, the Western Cape province said it would, in contravention of official national policy, provide rape survivors with AZT (azidothymidine), a drug that reduces the risk of transmission of HIV. Earlier, the non-ANC province had begun issuing the drug to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In response, and apparently in defiance of its own rules, the government extended the scope of European-funded trials of another mother-to-child drug, Nevirapine.

There has been no apology from President Mbeki's office for the months of confusion he has sown in a country where panic and prejudice have taken hold. Ten per cent of the population is HIV positive. Indeed, given his lack of leadership and the lack of government medication or advice, it is no wonder that men in the KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces follow their mates' advice and "cure'' themselves by raping virgins.

On Monday, because he could not bring himself to say sorry, President Mbeki made known that he would no longer speak about Aids and that he had appointed a committee to replace himself in the "debate'' on the causal relationship between HIV and Aids. At the same time, the World Health Organisation in Geneva was brokering talks between South Africa and drug companies over the launch of "trials'' - a face-saving term for ways to provide tried and tested drugs.

Several thousand new Aids cases after President Mbeki latched on to scientists who were discredited years ago for claiming HIV does not lead to Aids, South Africa must accept that drug companies' prices will remain unquestioned and that it will have to make do with hand-outs - exactly what the pharmaceutical companies wanted all along.

Next week, the Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, will again outline the government's Aids policy. Dr Tshabalala-Msimang will say the South African government's policy has always been based on the assumption that HIV leads to Aids.

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