SAPA 5 July 2000

Johannesburg -- The Office of President Thabo Mbeki has distanced itself from a statement by presidential spokesperson Parks Mankahlana who said the Durban Declaration -- a statement signed by 5 000 scientists decrying Mbeki's stance on the causes of AIDS -- should be consigned to the dustbin.

Tasneem Carrim of the Office of the President said Mankahlana was just "speaking off the cuff and not representing the presidency".

She said media statements on the AIDS conference had been assigned to the Government Communication and Information Systems.

It is understood that Mankahlana has been instructed to avoid making any further statements on the issue following the remark. Attempts to speak to Mankahlana drew a blank last night.

Various political parties have condemned the remark as irresponsible while the ANC declined to comment.

Democratic Party spokesperson Jack Bloom yesterday described the remark as astonishing and highly irresponsible.

Azanian People's Organisation spokesperson Kedibone Molema said the remark was undiplomatic and belittled the stature of the Office of the President. It would render the entire AIDS conference useless since it had been implied that the Office of the President would not consider what would come out of the conference.

Bloom said: "By causing doubt that HIV causes AIDS, you are actually encouraging people to continue with their irresponsible behaviour. This kind of a statement undermines our efforts to combat AIDS because there are people who do not think that AIDS is a reality.

"This is very serious and Mankahlana should be called to account. He is trying to protect President Mbeki who has exposed himself to criticism."

Pan Africanist Congress secretary-general Thami Plaatjie rejected Mankahlana's comment as stupid.

"We have no record of Mankahlana as a trained scientist. How can he dismiss scientists who have committed their lives to study the subject? It is only a fool who can challenge the findings of scientists on this matter.

"Considering this kind of attitude, we doubt if South Africa is qualified to host this international conference on AIDS," said Plaatjie.

ANC spokesman Nat Serache said he did not want to comment on Mankahlana's statement.