By Mike Cohen

AP 7 March 2002

Johannesburg -- Former South African President Nelson Mandela joined former President Carter and Bill Gates Sr., the father of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, Thursday in the battle against Africa's AIDS epidemic.

At a function staged at the Zola clinic in Soweto, a vast sprawling township on Johannesburg's outskirts, the three men cradled tiny HIV positive babies, and called for treatment to be made available to AIDS sufferers and for an end to the stigmatization of those suffering from the disease.

Mandela, still widely revered three years after stepping down as president, has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the South African government's refusal to make AIDS drugs widely available to HIV positive mothers to lessen the chances of them passing the virus on to their children.

"It is necessary here to be broad-minded, not to feel that your ego has been touched, if you listen to what the public is saying," he said Thursday.

Mandela's comments were directed at Mbhazima Shilowa, the governor of the Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria. Mandela praised Shilowa for widening access to treatment at public hospitals.

However, his remarks could also be viewed as veiled criticism of his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, who has questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, and has questioned the safety of AIDS drugs.

Mandela conceded that there was a risk that the drugs were toxic, but said people should have the freedom to take them.

Carter also urged that everyone be given access to treatment.

"My personal belief is that (AIDS drugs) are effective and safe," he said.

A young HIV-positive mother, who gave her first name as Mpumelelo, echoed his view. "All we are asking is to have treatment so we can bring up our children," she said.

The Gates Foundation, funded by Bill Gates and overseen by his father, has funded research on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV at the Soweto clinic.

The head of the Soweto clinic's AIDS program, James McIntyre, said 13,000 women were offered counseling on the dangers of HIV last year and 90 percent of them agreed to be tested for the virus. About 3,000 woman were given AIDS drugs last year, a figure expected to reach 8,000 this year.

Mandela urged those with AIDS not to give up hope, and urged communities to accept those who contracted the disease. "The stigma (associated with AIDS) is sometimes more dangerous that the terminal disease itself," he said.

An estimated 4.7 million South Africans are HIV-positive, more than any other country in the world.