By Hilary Gush

Reuters 3 March 2002

Johannesburg -- Nelson Mandela said on Sunday he supported South Africa's AIDS research policy, but proposed giving people a choice to take anti-AIDS drugs if they were not prepared to wait for the government's study results.

Moving to dispel talk of a rift with the ruling African National Congress over AIDS, the former president held a news briefing with the party's top brass, including Deputy President Jacob Zuma, Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad and ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe.

President Thabo Mbeki, who has been criticised at home and abroad for his stance on the deadly disease, was at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Australia.

"The government and the ANC generally, and myself in particular, are agreed that the greatest threat facing South Africa and the continent is that of AIDS," said Mandela, who has become increasingly critical of the hesitant official policy on the disease which affects one in nine South Africans.

But he said he understood why the ANC was reluctant to roll out anti-AIDS drugs throughout the country before its research into the drugs was complete.

Research in Europe and the United States had limited use as social circumstances in South Africa were so different -- people were poor, undernourished and had weak immune systems.

"Without saying that poverty causes AIDS, there is no doubt that poverty brings a fundamental difference to the research carried out in Europe and America and research conducted here," Mandela, wearing a bright blue shirt fastened with a red AIDS-ribbon pin, said.

But until the research is released, he said, "people who want to consult a doctor, or any other person who they think can give them a drug which is going to...cure their condition must be free to do so, because otherwise this impression is going to continue that we don't care."

Mbeki's government has been sharply criticised for refusing to allow universal access to the anti-AIDS drug Nevirapine to help prevent mother-child transmission of the virus that causes AIDS and for rape victims, citing cost and safety concerns.

Mbeki has also been slammed for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS.

But Mandela said the major problem was the government's failure to communicate properly. "Communications on the part of the government and the ANC leaves much to be desired."

Zuma, acting president in Mbeki's absence, said Mandela's proposal to allow those who wanted AIDS drugs to get them, would be discussed and considered.

"It's a proposal that says those who do so (take the anti-AIDS drugs) must remember the nature of the drug being given. People mustn't issue it out like aspirin," Zuma said.