By Khathu Mamaila and Robert Brand

The Star (South Africa) 14 Sept. 2000

The government on Thursday moved to quell the growing controversy around President Thabo Mbeki's stance on HIV and AIDS.

Advertisements seeking to clarify the views of the President and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang on whether HIV causes AIDS have been placed in Friday's newspapers.

This follows the publication on Thursday of a confidential document written by leaders of the ANC's national health committee calling on Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang to acknowledge that HIV causes AIDS. Tshabalala-Msimang last week clashed with Radio 702 talkshow host John Robbie when Robbie insisted that she explain whether she believes HIV causes AIDS.

The adverts also follow the admission earlier this week by Essop Pahad, the Minister in the President's Office, who is the political head of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), that he had failed to communicate Mbeki's stance on the link between HIV and AIDS effectively.

The ANC's parliamentary whips have also written to Mbeki asking him to brief the party's parliamentary caucus in an effort to clear up misunderstandings about the government's policy on HIV and AIDS.

The adverts, which are an attempt to "put the issue beyond doubt in the public mind", were placed by the GCIS. They say "neither the president nor his cabinet colleagues have ever denied a link between HIV and AIDS". "This is made clear if one refers to the full transcript of the president's interview last week with Time magazine," the advert asserts.

"The published edited version in Time, on which many critics now depend, conflated his remarks in a way which could give rise to a misunderstanding over his use of the word 'no' after being asked if he was prepared to acknowledge that there was a link between HIV and AIDS.

"In fact, the president went on to say 'you cannot attribute immune deficiency solely and exclusively to a virus'. The context of the full transcript makes it expressly clear he was prepared to accept that HIV might 'very well' be a causal factor.

"The president went on to say 'AIDS is a syndrome. It's a whole variety of diseases which affect a person because something negative has happened to the immune system. If the scientists come back and say this virus is part of the variety of things from which people acquire immune deficiency, I have no problem with that. But to say this is the sole cause, therefore the only response to it is anti-retroviral drugs--I am saying we will never be able to solve the AIDS problem."

The ANC also moved on Thursday to reverse perceptions of discord within the ruling party over the issue. The party said the confidential document written by leaders of its national health committee did not reflect the ANC's official view. However, it said policy on HIV and AIDS was not cast in stone and would continually be debated within the organisation.

The document, part of which was leaked to The Star this week, reflects concern among ANC members about Mbeki's ambiguous statements on the disease, which affects more than four million South Africans. Neither Mbeki's office nor Tshabalala-Msimang would comment on the developments when approached on Thursday, saying they were internal ANC matters.

ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama did not deny the authenticity of the health committee document, but said it did not reflect "the views or policies of the ANC, its leadership structures, committees or organs". It was an "internal discussion document that reflects the views of its author". The document's author is the deputy chairperson of the ANC's national health committee, Confidence Moloko.

The committee is a policy unit intended to advise the health minister and the party's national executive committee on policy. It does not have decision-making powers but has great influence within ANC decision-making structures.

Ngonyama said the leaking of the document was part of "a concerted campaign that seeks to create perceptions of divisions within the ANC". He said the document would be subjected to debate and "further consolidation and even reformulation if need be".