By Lynne Altenroxel

SAPA 10 July 2000

The government's worst fears have been realised: no sooner had the 13th International AIDS Conference opened than it became an Mbeki-bashing event.

Among the voice of dissent has been that of Edwin Cameron, a Constitutional Court acting judge, who used one of the first sessions, in which he delivered a memorial lecture to a hall packed with more than a thousand delegates, to slam the government.

In a rousing speech that received a standing ovation, Judge Cameron accused the government of mismanaging the HIV epidemic "almost at every conceivable turn" and declared his disappointment at President Thabo Mbeki's opening night speech.

'Why should Mbeki deny something he has not said' The speech, in which Mbeki insisted that his government was committed to the fight against HIV, did not do enough to counter government blunders, Cameron said.

He said that, to his "grief and consternation", Mbeki had made no announcement about providing pregnant women with AZT.

Delegates expressed bitter disappointment with President Thabo's Mbeki's failure to come clean on his controversial HIV/AIDS position.

While the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, defended Mbeki's interest in the revisionist theory that HIV does not cause AIDS, Mbeki was criticised by a number of eminent delegates.

Tshabalala-Msimang said South Africa would not be dictated to by the world on how it should formulate it's health policy. Mbeki, she said, was fully committed to fighting the HIV/AIDS scourge holistically.

"The president of this country has never denied either the existence of AIDS nor this casual connection between HIV and AIDS," Tshabalala-Msimang said. "Why should he deny something he has not said?"

Conference chairperson Jerry Coovadia said there was an air of disappointment among thousands of conference delegates from across the globe that Mbeki did not reverse perceptions that he supported the dissident view that HIV was not the cause of AIDS when he officially opened the conference on Sunday night.

Mbeki instead maintained his stance that poverty was the biggest "disease" causing death in Africa. Mbeki also questioned the effectiveness of the conference in dealing with the major issues surrounding AIDS in Africa.

Coovadia said while he understood that Mbeki, as a president, could not simply backtrack on his position, "delegates expected him to make a major policy announcement to shift away from controversial issues".

This did not happen and disappointment was most acute in the address of Cameron.

Cameron has publicly confessed to being gay and living with HIV for the past three years.

On Monday he said he was only still alive because he was able to "pay for life itself".

Cameron criticised Mbeki and his government for failing South Africans suffering from HIV/AIDS. He also criticised the government's decision not to give the anti-retroviral drug AZT to HIV positive pregnant women dependent on the public health care system. He said because of this, about 5 000 HIV-positive babies were born every month.

Cameron added that Mbeki's "intractably puzzling" statement and his flirtation with revisionists had shocked almost everyone involved in fighting the pandemic.

He said as a Constitutional Court judge, responsible for maintaining human rights in the country, he felt compelled to speak out about what was keeping him alive, while millions of South Africans were dying.

Oxford University's Professor Roy Anderson said the South African government had failed to intervene timeously to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS. Referring to a recent UNAIDS report which stated that South Africa had one of the highest HIV/AIDS incidences globally, he said political will and leadership could act as catalysts to slow down the spread of the scourge.

Anderson was also critical of the dissident theorists and said he was disappointed that Mbeki had failed to publicly reject their view.

He said the explosive spread of AIDS in Africa, of which South Africa had one of the highest rates, could have been curtailed over the past 13 years had it been nipped in the bud, since it was already known back in 1987 how to prevent the transmission of AIDS.

Anderson urged the industrialised world to assist developing nations with affordable anti-retroviral medicine so the "patchy" pattern in the global fight against AIDS could change. He said a cure for AIDS was still a long way off. "Vaccines are the only hope for the future... and that is not going to happen quickly."

Coovadia agreed that the South African government had started its AIDS awareness campaign far too late. The government had also made serious mistakes along the way, including the fiascos surrounding the AIDS play, Sarafina II, and the purported AIDS drug Virodene, followed by the revisionist statements.

He said Uganda, one of the only African countries where the HIV infection rate was dropping, started its campaign in 1990. South Africa's AIDS campaign only kicked off in 1994, when the African National Congress took over from the apartheid government, which had spectacularly failed to address the disease.

Tshabalala-Msimang said prior to the election of the ANC government, there had been hardly any AIDS fighting infrastructure in place. The ANC had set in place structures to start fighting the killer disease, she said.

The United States government on Monday applauded Mbeki's commitment to fighting AIDS in South Africa, but warned that the window of opportunity was closing fast to do something about it.

Director in the Office of National AIDS Policy in the White House, Sandra Thurman, agreed with Mbeki's stance that poverty was indeed a primary AIDS issue, but said that in the absence of poverty, HIV/AIDS still existed.

"It is true that we will never win the battle against HIV/AIDS unless we reduce poverty. But it is also true that even in the absence of poverty, we still have HIV/AIDS," Thurman said.