SOUTH AFRICAN LEADER STIRS CONTROVERSY
OVER HIV-AIDS CRISIS
Letter to Clinton defends medical researchers
who dispute link between virus and syndrome
By Hein Marais
The Globe and Mail (Canada) 20 April 2000
Johannesburg -- South African President Thabo Mbeki has added to the
controversy surrounding his government's response to the AIDS crisis by
sending a letter to world leaders in which he defends medical dissidents
who question the link between HIV and AIDS.
In a hand-addressed, five-page letter delivered to U.S. President Bill
Clinton in a diplomatic pouch last week, Mr. Mbeki contests the
pertinence of Western medical expertise in combating what he calls a
"uniquely African catastrophe." In the letter he asserts his
government's right to doubt whether the human immunodeficiency virus
causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, to question whether
lifesaving treatments such as the drug AZT are too toxic and to resist
the "superimposition of Western experience on African reality."
Mr. Mbeki also accuses critics of his bid to reopen debate about the
nature of the disease of waging a "campaign of intellectual intimidation
and terrorism," which he likens to "the racist apartheid tyranny we
Copies of the letter were sent to other world leaders, including United
Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Last month, the African National Congress government stunned local and
international AIDS organizations by inviting AIDS dissidents to
participate in talks coinciding with the July meeting of the World AIDS
Conference in Durban.
South African and international AIDS experts are threatening to boycott
the conference, throwing local AIDS groups into turmoil as the country
approaches the brink of a full-scale epidemic.
Figures released yesterday by the Health Ministry show that 4.2 million,
or one in 10, South Africans are HIV-positive and that 1,700 people are
being infected daily. More than 33 million people around the world are
infected with HIV and 70 per cent of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.
In his letter, Mr. Mbeki fervently defends South Africa's right to
consult with AIDS dissidents like University of California, Berkeley
biochemist Peter Duesberg and his ally, David Rasnick. They contend that
HIV does not cause AIDS, a contention that has been dismissed by the
medical and scientific community worldwide. Mr. Mbeki is adamant that
the puzzle of HIV and AIDS remains unsolved.
Local diplomatic sources say Mr. Mbeki's stand stems from a fervent
desire to find another approach to AIDS in a country that cannot afford
the cocktails of antiretroviral drugs manufactured by Western
A year of treatment costs about $15,000 a person in South Africa, a
country where almost half the population earns less than $1,400 a year.
As a result, the ANC government has been locked in a battle with Western
drug companies to win the right to import or manufacture generic
versions of patented drugs -- something Washington has particularly
Last month, Mr. Mbeki's spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, accused Western
drug firms of enriching themselves from the AIDS epidemic and compared
them to warmongers "who propagate fear to increase their profits."
In his letter, Mr. Mbeki stressed that South Africa is doing everything
it can, "within our very limited possibilities," to provide care for
Yet the ANC government has refused to make the drug AZT available in
public clinics, saying it is toxic even though studies have shown it can
protect the babies of HIV-infected mothers.