Release from Mr Parks Mankahlana
Head of Communications - President Mbeki's Office

24 March 2000

There continue to be questions about the philosophical underpinnings of religion and the scriptures. Many philosophers and historians have gone as far as questioning the existence of God and the legacy of Jesus Christ. These questions notwithstanding, humankind's devotion and commitment to religious guidance and solace has not diminished. In fact, over the years, man's association with the word of God has flourished. Then why should questions that are asked by the South African government about HIV/AIDS reverse the "gains that have been made in the past thirteen years"?

Human beings live in the realm of what they know. Through the ages, humanity's relationships with its environment has been discovery, research, investigation, discovery and invention. Knowledge and information as well as their management and dissemination are therefore important ingredients in the definition of human existence.

From time immemorial humans have struggled to grasp phenomena which for want of scientific progress at the time were either incomprehensible or confusing to them. English words like "magic", "mystery" and many others that seek to define phenomena and things that human beings did not understand epitomise the struggle to understand our surroundings. Out of anxiety -should we say desperation- to understand and grapple with the unknown, humans invent such belief, as witchcraft, sorcery and even religion, to explain what was alien to them. All this is due to the failure or inhibitions of scientific progress and philosophical thought at the various stages of human development.

Invariably, the powerful and the rich expropriate knowledge, issue patents to themselves and make laws and regulations to protect and defend their interests. With the advent of capitalism and its modernisation, knowledge and information have become the main commodities in the process of wealth accumulation.

Since his address to the National Council of Provinces in August in 1999, President Thabo Mbeki has taken the debate on HIV/AIDS to the level it deserves. He is the only head of state that has put the HIV/AIDS issue on the national agenda on a daily basis, not only in South Africa, but the world over. Like most HIV/AIDS activists have argued, he has broken the tradition that seeks to make the disease just a health problem. HIV/AIDS is a socio-economic problem. It is a political problem that has reached the proportion of an international crisis. It threatens to destroy nations and continents.

There has hardly been a response from any personality of note from the third world or any of the countries most affected by HIV/AIDS to the debate about AZT. We have not seen the kind of reaction we would have encountered had any other drug prescribed for TB, cholera or other diseases been at issue. AZT means little or nothing to most of the citizens of the world where HIV/AIDS is prevalent because they can't afford it any way.

But why has Mbeki generated such a violent reaction from the same people who should cherish a head of government championing the cause of HIV/AIDS awareness. Why is it that the only President in the world whose every published photograph has the HIV awareness ribbon emblazoned on his breast has become the subject of scorn and ridicule? Why is it that a President that authorised an additional R73 Million from a limited budget for AIDS research is accused of embracing voodoo science? And why is he accused of saying things he has said?.

Commerce and industry unfortunately define human relations and conduct. In the modern world, what we say or do not say, may be the ultimate determinant in share price performance or non-performance.

The response to President Mbeki's address in the NCOP in 1999 was not motivated by the desire to see an end to the scourge of AIDS/HIV. It was driven by the fear of the impact the remarks would have on the profitability of the product.

The "evil empire" was a construct of the military industrial complex. Super profits being the major consideration, the world was made to indulge in the most extravagant arms race that we have ever seen. Yes socialism existed, and inequality within and between nations was there. Indeed poverty and inequality continue to devastate humankind. But neither socialist ideas nor poverty were annihilated by the accumulated profits that sit comfortably in the accounts of the harvests of the loot of the "cold war".

HIV/AIDS is not going to succumb to the machinations of the profiteering pharmaceuticals and their propagandists. Like the marauders of the military industrial complex, the profit takers who are benefiting from the scourge of HIV/AIDS will disappear to the affluent beaches of the world to enjoy wealth accumulated from humankind ravaged by a dreaded disease. And we shall continue to die from AIDS.

Why is it that no one has asked the medical insurance companies to cover medical services for people with HIV/AIDS? Why is it that we do not hear voices demanding that doctors be allowed to prescribe AZT and the other therapies that are applicable to HIV/AIDS patients? Why is there no clamour for insurance companies to provide life cover for people who live with HIV/AIDS? Why must the South African government give AZT to pregnant women when medical insurance companies will not cover it even for affording members? And this despite the enormous resources these companies command compared to the meagre resources of government. The answer is simple - it is not profitable. Sure, the shareholders of Glaxo -Welcome will rejoice to hear that the South African government has decided to supply AZT to pregnant women who are HIV positive. The source shall not be concern for their health but about profits and shareholder value.

What is the reality? AIDS exists!

What is reality? There is no cure for AIDS!

What is reality? We humans know very little about HIV/AIDS.

This is the reality of President Mbeki's world, namely the challenge to find answers about an illness that is ravaging more especially the poorest of the poor.

The President has authorised an international panel to be instituted to broaden the search for solutions.

The international panel must strive to give us answers to all the unknowns. They must attempt to unravel the "mysteries" of HIV/AIDS, including and more especially what the profit-takers cannot tell us.

President Mbeki is committed to the campaign to eradicate HIV/AIDS from the face of the earth. He would not be dedicating so much time to the issue if he were not. He needs support - not the abuse of all of us. He deserves supporters, not detractors in his genuine quest to ensure HIV/AIDS is addressed correctly.