Reuters 6 Aug. 2001

Cape Town -- South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has attracted a storm of controversy for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, said on Monday violence and not AIDS was the biggest killer in the country.

"You know what the largest single cause of death in South Africa is? The largest single cause of death as we sit here is what in the medical statistics is called 'external causes' and that is violence in this society," Mbeki said in an interview broadcast by the BBC.

The remarks are likely to attract further doubts over Mbeki's stance on HIV-AIDS which affects close to five million South Africans, more than any other single country.

United Nations modelling estimates that seven million South Africans will die from AIDS-related diseases within the decade.

South Africa has a reputation as one of the most dangerous places outside a war zone but current police statistics point to a total of about 220,000 murders over the next 10 years.

Mbeki has acknowledged that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus is a cause of AIDS, but does not accept it is the only cause, arguing that poverty plays a key factor in the pandemic that affects more than 25 million Africans.

He has denied life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs on cost and safety grounds and appointed scientists who argue AIDS is caused by recreational drug use to his own panel on the disease.

Mbeki, in his interview on the BBC Hard Talk programme, said more than half of those who die between the ages of 16 and 45 will die of "external causes."

"I am saying that the majority of people in this country are dying from that.

"You cannot say to me I must ignore that and not take into account the fact that the majority of the people in that particular age group, which is the working population, is dying from the violence that is so terrible in this society," Mbeki, who came into power in 1999, said.