By Rob Rose

Business Day (South Africa) 20 June 2001

President Thabo Mbekiís views on HIV/AIDS will be delivered to a global audience when Harry Belafonte addresses the United Nations special assembly on HIV/AIDS in New York next week.

Belafonte, the goodwill ambassador of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), met Mbeki during a 12-day tour to South Africa.

Belafonte said he would take "all the experience and analysis being given by responsible leaders in South Africa" and present this to the United Nations secretary-general as well as to delegates at the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS taking place in New York from June 25 to 27.

While in South Africa, the former singer met with Mbeki, officials from the Department of Health and the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on social development. Belafonte told a press briefing in Sandton that Mbeki "did not hesitate to tell me his point of view on a host of issues, starting with HIV/AIDS".

"I sat with him, I talked with him and I asked hard-nosed questions." Belafonte said that Mbeki put forward his view that AIDS is about "more than just healthcare", and that social factors need to be considered when tackling the disease.

Belafonte said that the president had shown that "the mystification of medicine and science by itself is an insufficient discourse to answer the other ramifications of AIDS".

"There is nothing to disagree with on [Mbeki's] views on AIDS when he explains that what the medical and scientific community says does not stand alone... That the pandemic is affected by hunger, malnutrition and other social factors."

"I agree with Thabo Mbeki, as does my wife, and as I'm sure Unicef does, that unless a mighty Armada (fleet) is assembled to tackle the social issues that helps the AIDS pandemic sustain itself, we will have missed the boat."

While Thabo Mbeki's contention that AIDS can only be tackled in the context of other social problems was discussed, the president's public questioning of the link between HIV and AIDS was not raised, Belafonte said. While Belafonte said that he "won't defend the President from what I've read" in the papers, he indicated that Mbeki's views needed to be seen in totality. "It is a little unfair to consider just one aspect of his views in isolation," Belafonte said.

The US singer and UN ambassador said he was pleased that Mbeki has opened up debate on the issue. When asked how he will respond to possible criticism of South Africa's response to HIV/AIDS should the issue arise in the UN AIDS assembly, Belafonte said while he would present the views of the countryís leaders, "I do not have to define Mbekiís views".

Belafonte said would use the UN assembly as a chance to "suggest that those in the US donít just send medicines" and that greater humanitarian assistance as well as expertise be provided to countries in Africa in the grip of the AIDS pandemic. Belafonte said that he saw hope in South AfricaĻs response to AIDS and said that the country could be looked at to provide an example to the rest of Africa. Unicef representative to South Africa, Jesper Morch, says that the statistics of AIDS infections in South Africa are "horrible".

He cited statistics showing that more than 50% of all 15-year-old children in the country will have died from AIDS within 15 years.