By Ravi Nessman

AP 22 March 2002

Johannesburg -- The ruling African National Congress has given its top officials a document that questions the existence of AIDS, condemns AIDS drugs as poisonous and describes Western attitudes to the pandemic in Africa as blatant racism.

The document, obtained Friday by The Associated Press, was a collective effort by several high-ranking ANC officials and was distributed by the party to members of its National Executive Council at a meeting last weekend to discuss the government's AIDS policy, according to Peter Mokaba, an ANC parliamentarian and member of the council.

Mokaba defended the document as "information sharing in the ANC."

"It brings together all the elements, so to speak, of this debate," he said. "Science says all of those things that are quoted in there."

Dr. Saadiq Kariem, the party's second-ranking official on health policy, called the document "ludicrous" and worried it could confuse South Africans about how to prevent the spread of HIV.

South Africa, with an estimated 4.7 million people infected with HIV, has come under a hail of international criticism for its perceived lackadaisical efforts to fight the pandemic.

It has resisted starting a widespread program to give the AIDS drug nevirapine to infected pregnant mothers to prevent the spread of HIV to their babies during labor.

It has ruled out providing anti-retroviral AIDS medicine through the public health system, emphasizing the side effects of the medicine.

President Thabo Mbeki also has sought the counsel of dissident AIDS theorists, whose widely condemned ideas about the disease are presented prominently in the ANC document.

Mbeki's spokesman Bheki Khumalo did not return a call seeking comment.

The document questioned the "scientific story that is told about the HIV/AIDS pandemic." The 114-page thesis intersperses quotes from news stories, dissident theorists and mainstream scientists with conclusions from the authors.

The document, which repeatedly condemns the "omnipotent apparatus" that enforces mainstream belief of AIDS, claims no one has ever isolated the AIDS virus, HIV tests are absolutely ineffective and AIDS drugs are poisonous.

Africans are "the latest victim of scare mongering" about AIDS, the document says.

It calls on South Africans not to be "bribed or intimidated" by drug companies who mistakenly believe the nation's people can be "bought and terrorized."

It also condemned accepted truths about the disease as simple extensions of the racist stereotype of Africans as "immoral, diseased and sexually depraved animals."

The real problem in Africa is poverty, the document says. The West was using AIDS to ignore its costly responsibility to help the continent's development. Instead, the West was offering far cheaper condoms and drugs.

In addition to the ANC leadership, the document was also given to leaders of the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the ANC's partners in the government, Mokaba said.

Kariem, the ANC's health secretary, said the paper's questions about the link between HIV and AIDS and the virus' transmission through heterosexual sex fly in the face of reams of scientific studies.

"I can't imagine anything more farfetched than that," he said.

He worried how doctors across the country would be able to convince hesitant patients to wear condoms during sex in light of the document's claims and he questioned why his party distributed it.

"It's irresponsible for senior leaders of the ANC to be putting out documents of this nature. It sends out a confused message," he said. "In the end of the day the ANC will be the laughingstock of the world."

The document also attacks the integrity of the quasi-governmental Medical Research Council, saying the body has ascribed to "the faith about HIV/AIDS" in order to help pharmaceutical companies sell drugs.

Mokaba defended the document, saying it was important to see both sides of the AIDS debate.

"We cannot be stampeded into any one position by people whose interest is merely to sell anti-retrovirals" and who do not have the welfare of South Africans at heart, he said.