By Emelia Sithole

Reuters 3 July 2000

Johannesburg -- The South African government on Monday slammed as "intolerant'' a declaration by more than 5,000 leading scientists and doctors published ahead of an international AIDS conference in Durban.

The so-called Durban Declaration, published in the run-up to the world's largest AIDS meeting scheduled to begin on Sunday, said overwhelming evidence showed that the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS. It condemned theories by so-called dissident, or revisionist, scientists who contest this view.

President Thabo Mbeki has been widely criticised for saying he is not convinced that HIV is the only cause of AIDS, which has infected 33 million people worldwide.

"How can you draft a declaration and adopt it before the conference?'' said presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana.

"We have never seen this kind of intolerance and we don't want people bringing intolerance to South Africa,'' Mankahlana told Reuters.

He said the declaration, published at the weekend in the scientific medical journal Nature, appeared to target Mbeki, who has been criticised for his government's refusal to give pregnant women the anti-retroviral drug AZT and for expressing his doubts about the effectiveness of anti-AIDS drugs.

Mbeki has also angered some scientists by including dissident researchers like American Peter Duesberg on a presidential panel investigating the disease in South Africa.

Government figures show that 10 percent of South Africans, or some 4.3 million people, have been infected with HIV.

UNAids says the correct figure is double the official one and AIDS workers have accused the South African government of dithering while the spread of the disease rapidly becomes a crisis.

President's Office Warns Against Mbeki Bashing

Mankahlana hit back at critics, warning that the debate appeared to be descending into Mbeki bashing.

"President Mbeki may be wrong in raising the questions but you cannot take away his right to ask. People are entitled to make declarations but people must be careful they don't confine their work on HIV/AIDS to Mbeki bashing,'' Mankahlana said.

"You can bash Mbeki but that would not bring the desired results,'' he added.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang also hit out at local scientists who signed the declaration, saying they had pushed for a tougher line but had backed down after she questioned their motives.

She said the declaration smacked of elitism.

Scientists from the South Africa's National Institute of Virology were among the 5,000 who signed the Durban Declaration.

"I'm not questioning the contents, I'm questioning the process. If you look at the declaration and the people who are supposed to sign the declaration it is again the exclusive health scientists only,'' said Tshabalala-Msimang.

"As we have always said, AIDS is not an issue that must be dealt with only by scientists. It is an issue about all of us, all sectors of society, government, business, so you can't have a certain exclusive group of people saying this is what we believe about HIV and AIDS.''