MBEKI FIGHTS RULING THAT AIDS DRUG MUST BE USED
president adds conspiracy theory to revitalised campaign against mainstream
By Chris McGreal
The Guardian (London) 2 April 2002
Thabo Mbeki's battle against AIDS orthodoxy goes to the constitutional
court tomorrow as the South African government seeks to overturn a judge's
order requiring it to immediately provide anti-HIV drugs to pregnant women.
The legal challenge comes days after the health and justice ministers were
forced to retract threats to defy the courts over AIDS which led critics to
accuse the government of riding roughshod over the constitution.
But the ministers' belligerence is a clear reflection of Mr Mbeki's renewed
determination to resist demands that he take a more conventional approach
to a disease that is predicted to claim about 6 million lives before the
end of the decade. His revitalised campaign against mainstream views of
AIDS within the ruling African National Congress includes the distribution
of a bizarre document that alleges an "omnipotent apparatus" is using the
disease to commit genocide against Africans. Among its claims is that Nkosi
Johnson - the 12-year-old black boy who publicly criticised Mr Mbeki and
who died of AIDS last year - was really poisoned by anti-retroviral drugs
given to him by the white woman who adopted him.
Tomorrow, the government will seek to stay a high court order requiring it
to make widely available a drug, nevirapine, that drastically cuts the
likelihood of mothers passing HIV on to their babies.
The government argues that nevirapine is untested and potentially
dangerous, even though it is recommended by the World Health Organisation.
But the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, is appealing to the
constitutional court on the grounds that judges cannot set government policy.
Last week, Dr Tshabalala-Msimang caused a storm of protest by saying that
the government would not abide by the high court ruling whatever the
outcome of its latest legal challenge. The justice minister, Penuel Maduna,
then claimed that because the ruling was made by a court in Pretoria it was
binding only on the surrounding Gauteng region and did not apply to the
rest of the country.
There followed a barrage of criticism of both ministers by legal experts,
AIDS activists and prominent South Africans including the former Archbishop
of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu.
"I hope the government will abide by the court decision and the rule of
law. Since we live in a democracy, that is what we would expect. The
government's stance on nevirapine has made South Africa the laughing stock
of the world," he said.
Both ministers subsequently backed down.
The legal furore has been matched by the leaking of a lengthy ANC document
first presented to ruling party leaders last month by the president's
allies to counter an attempt by Nelson Mandela to win changes to Mr Mbeki's
controversial AIDS policies.
One of the authors of the document is Peter Mokaba, an ANC MP and party
firebrand. He publicly says HIV doesn't exist, that people are not dying of
AIDS and that anti-retroviral drugs "could lead to genocide".
But Mr Mokaba is seen as doing no more than giving voice to Mr Mbeki's
beliefs. The president was forced to curb his public statements on AIDS
because of criticism at home and abroad. But in recent weeks he has again
been pushing his controversial claims within the ANC and its trade union
The president's influence over the 114-page document is clear from the
considerable space given to his favourite theories about AIDS - that
poverty not HIV is the real cause of the collapse of the immune system in
those who develop the disease, and that anti-AIDS drugs are so poisonous as
to do more harm than good to the point of being life-threatening.
The document accuses an "omnipotent apparatus" of promoting the
conventional views on AIDS and how to treat it as a means of denigrating
Africans while trying to profit from their misery and kill them. The
apparatus is ill-defined, but drug companies, scientists and western
governments are accused of being part of the plot.
Among its many claims, the document says that Mr Mbeki's former spokesman,
Parks Mankahlana, who died of AIDS last year, was in fact poisoned to death
by anti-retroviral drugs and that he never had HIV. It makes a similar
claim about Nkosi Johnson.
"(Parks Mankahlana) died, vanquished by the anti-retroviral drugs he was
wrongly persuaded to consume. He died prematurely, but the professionals
who fed him the drugs that killed him remain free to feed others with the
same drugs. They lived to tell us and the world that their patient had died
of a virus they had never found in his body," the document says. "Then came
Nkosi. He, too, died, vanquished by the anti-retroviral drugs he was forced
The document includes attacks on those who disagree with Mr Mbeki's views
on AIDS, including accusations that some scientists are in the pay of drug
companies. Particular venom is reserved for Glenda Gray, an outspoken
paediatrician who won the Nelson Mandela human rights award earlier this
year for her work on AIDS at Soweto's main hospital.
The ANC document accuses Dr Gray of "experimenting" on black people with
anti-retrovi ral drugs and alleges that a pregnant woman died in her care
as a result. It calls for her to be "held accountable" for "lying" about
"That's preposterous. There was no one, no one, who died in my study from
the toxicity of the drugs," said Dr Gray. "Should I be held accountable for
trying to save people's lives? Should I be held accountable for trying to
prevent women from passing on HIV to their babies? I'm prepared to be held
accountable for being outraged that people die when their lives can be saved."