Reuters 7 March 2002

Johannesburg -- Former South African President Nelson Mandela warned on Thursday that people would die "in scores every day" if the government continued to block access to key HIV/AIDS drugs.

At a modest public clinic in the black township of Soweto outside Johannesburg, Mandela also came his closest yet to publicly criticizing his successor Thabo Mbeki's controversial stance on the deadly disease.

Though Mandela has been cautious in criticizing the current leadership, he has urged government to allow people, especially pregnant women, access to HIV/AIDS drugs at state hospitals.

"If the government says, 'don't make any move until we have completed our research,' young people and babies are going to die in scores every day," Mandela said at the clinic.

"The government must allow people, while it conducts its research, to go anywhere they want (to get drug treatment). If we do that, we will remove the perception that we don't care about our people who are dying," he added.

The government refuses to broaden access to the drug nevirapine beyond a handful of pilot studies, citing cost and safety grounds. AIDS activists dismiss the concerns.

Nevirapine is registered by the country's top medical authority for use in preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission, and its German manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim has offered it to the South African government free of charge for 5 years.

Mbeki has also been criticized for doubting the fact that HIV causes AIDS.

Without mentioning Mbeki in name, Mandela appealed for a change in mind-set.

"It is necessary to be broadminded and not feel that your ego is being attacked," Mandela said.

Relations between Mandela and Mbeki have been strained by the AIDS issue, culminating in a meeting earlier this month between Mandela and Mbeki's most trusted political allies to try to iron out their differences.

Critics of South Africa's AIDS policy say Mbeki's personal views have blunted government's response to the epidemic gripping the country.

This is despite South Africa having more people living with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world, with an estimated 5 million infected.

Mandela was accompanied in his visit to Soweto by former US President Jimmy Carter and William Gates Sr., the father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.