Reuters 19 June 2001

Johannesburg -- American singer and U.N. goodwill ambassador Harry Belafonte on Tuesday defended South African President Thabo Mbeki for creating a broader debate on the AIDS epidemic.

Mbeki has been criticised round the world for questioning the causal link between HIV and the AIDS epidemic threatening to swamp his country, and his government has been reluctant to provide anti-retroviral drugs to combat the killer disease.

"I was pleased that he (Mbeki) did not only open the AIDS debate but also gave others a chance to speak," Belafonte told reporters in Johannesburg at the end of a week-long tour of South Africa to study the impact of the disease.

Belafonte, who represents the United Nations Children's Fund, said the media had oversimplified Mbeki's views on the epidemic. He said he agreed with the South African leader that poverty, inequality and discrimination had also to be addressed in the AIDS debate.

About 4.7 million South Africans are living with HIV-AIDS and that number is forecast to rise to seven million by the end of the decade.

Belafonte, known to millions of fans as the "Calypso King," is also a veteran civil rights activist who took up the anti-apartheid cause in the 1980s and promoted the careers of South African singers in the United States.

He said the fight against AIDS was an extension of the fight against apartheid. "As the country becomes more educated and children break the wall of ignorance, things will change."

In an address to a parliamentary committee on Monday, Belafonte criticised churches and religious leaders for not taking a bigger role in the fight against AIDS.

"I genuinely feel that what should be the most important vanguard, has been the most difficult to come to the table to speak. That is the church," he said.