'No Antiretrovirals, Please'

By Ferial Haffajee

Financial Mail (South Africa) 1 March 2002

Peter Mokaba, ANC MP, is no newcomer to rough politics. He has become a key player in the HIV/AIDS debate within the ANC. Ferial Haffajee asked him about his position.

FM: You've been distributing articles on AIDS (to the caucus). What's the literature about?

PM: It's about this HIV/AIDS thing. It deals with research into HIV, research into treatment, research into the immune system. What it says is that after 20 years of investigation to find the HI virus, scientists have not succeeded in doing so. And it deals with antiretrovirals [because] they can cause AIDS.

Why are you distributing them?

We want our members to appreciate where the science is, what the scientists are saying ...

The issue of HIV/AIDS is being used by those who are HIV-causes-AIDS believers to divide the organisation and the country. There have been various attempts by quasi-scientists to say HIV is a problem of blacks. The story is that blacks are vulnerable to this thing because of their sexual morality. We also challenge the use of all antiretrovirals. If you don't have the virus isolated, then you can't have a tablet that cures it.

Who is "we"?

I'm speaking in the royal we ... the majority of the ANC. Those of us who are discussing this area for policy believe we need research on diseases that kill people and not on HIV.

What kind of research?

The President's Advisory Panel on AIDS isolated a number of research programmes to establish the truth about HIV, to isolate the virus. Those things have not yet started. [Medical Research Council chairman Malegapuru] Makgoba hasn't written the protocol. We want to know [what we have been testing] if the virus hasn't been isolated.

What political action should come out of your discussions?

I want us to take a decision, very firmly, that we are not going to provide antiretrovirals. I have raised this in the ANC NEC and briefed the national working committee and received no opposition.

I'm encouraging everybody to look into the matter. It will feed into the ANC policy conference in June.

Won't the President be angry? After all, he seems to want to end this damaging debate.

No. There's no such thing. It's not him that's saying it, it's the scientists . . . [W]e don't want [ him to] be a charismatic leader [with whom] people don't debate. He wants a debate.

It's not our view - and it's all in the [AIDS panel] report. It's not me, it's not the President, it's science.

Do you receive your documents from the President?

No, I've got more documents than he's got these days.

An NEC member told us not to take your views seriously. You're just "one out of 100" who feel this way.

If there are bloody cowards who don't speak out, they are not fit to be leaders. Leadership means going out to express your view boldly. Nobody has stood up to ask anything. Not one. And you can write that. That person must still learn to be a member of the ANC. You don't play the man, you play the ball.