By Glynnis Underhill

The Star (South Afica) 4 April 2002

Former revolutionary Peter Mokaba played a leading role in the publication of the ANC's controversial political document supporting the dissident view on HIV/AIDS which has the backing of President Thabo Mbeki but has been slammed by health professionals, writer Glynnis Underhill.

Two years ago it was mistakenly reported on radio that ANC MP Peter Mokaba had died. The rumour was that the former revolutionary had died of AIDS. But, far from being dead, a decidedly robust Mokaba has today emerged as one of the key authors of the ANC's controversial political document supporting the dissident view on HIV/AIDS - a document which is being distributed to its party- branches.

In an exclusive interview, Mokaba confirmed he had sent out a questionnaire to ANC members asking for input and the result was "a collective", he said, which manifested in Castro Hlongwane, Caravan, Cats, Geese, Foot and Mouth Statistics. HIV/AIDS and the Struggle for the Humanisation of the African.

The document, which has been slammed by Dr Saadiq Karrim, health secretary of the ANC and chairperson of its national health committee, was adopted and endorsed for release by President Thabo Mbeki and the national executive committee of the ANC last week.

The ANC's heated attack on the use of anti-retroviral drugs in the treatment of AIDS in this document and in a statement released to the press has drawn stinging rebuke from medical professionals and scientists, including Professor Malegapuru William Makgoba, the president of the Medical Research Council.

Last week Karrim said he was extremely angry about the distribution of the document about which he had not been consulted before its release. The document portrays AIDS as a conspiracy theory pushed by an "omnipotent apparatus" posing as friends of Africa, but with the aim of dehumanising Africans.

"Anyone who believes the claims made in it might as well believe the moon is made of green cheese," said an enraged Karrim.

In response, Mokaba accused Karrim of being "an ill-disciplined ANC member" who he said should not have publicly criticised a document endorsed by the national executive committee of the ANC.

"If he was an ANC person, as he claims, he knows the protocols in the ANC.. He would not be doing this. He should go to the NEC and have his opinion, but this is ill-discipline. This is a very ill-disciplined member of the ANC, surely? He does not behave like an ANC member."

Mokaba said Karrim was fighting for a single tablet, Nevirapine. "I will be putting it to Karrim. One: I just want to know whether he is indeed a member of the ANC. Secondly, I want to know why he is fighting for just one tablet?

"The strategy of our government is the best in the world. All that we are doing is that we are not giving a tablet that is unproven, and why does he think that he should sit up and fight for this one tablet?"

Mokaba. who in 2000 was desperately ill with a lung illness which baffled doctors, is unsurprised by the outrage that he expected would follow the release of the document, which is widely seen as an attempt to accommodate President Mbeki's own dissident views on HIV/AIDS.

While Mokaba anticipates widespread condemnation of his views, he is not trying to dodge the interest from the overseas press.

Reporters from CNN and the New York Times were kept waiting for him in Johannesburg as our interview ran over by a few hours in Cape Town.

"I expect to be vilified, but I have fought apartheid and we won. We will fight this battle too. We can't allow ourselves to be turned into guinea pigs and for the pharmaceutical companies to play with our lives in order for them to make profits," he said.

Mokaba said he had not been appointed by President Mbeki to represent his views, but he had found broad approval of his new battle.

He said that he was "very cose" to Nelson Mandela and he had discussed the document with the former president before its release at the ANC national executive council meeting. The meeting had been called to deliberate on the government's AIDS policy and was sparked by Mandela's call on the government to provide free access to antiretrovirals in public hospitals.

"Mandela loves people. He loves children. He made his appeal for free antiretroviral drugs for all in all sincerity. I have no problem with that."

Mokaba said he had never tested HIV positive and would not undergo an HIV test, something which he does not believe in. He, like many other HIV/AIDS dissidents, does not believe thai HIV leads' to AIDS and would advise everybody he knows not to be tested for HIV.

"I am particularly frustrated by a situation where people test HIV-positive and then they go home and commit suicide. There are more than 70 conditions which can cause a person to be ill ...not a virus at all. The way it is being promoted is that these tests are testing for virus-specific, which is an untruth. People go there, then they test, and then there is no hope. They say, therefore this will lead to AIDS, and then from there I must die."

The government should not entertain the idea of providing the anti-retrovirals to people free of charge at public hospitals to allow them to discover for themselves whether they found the drugs toxic or not, he said.

"No, you can't do that. As a revolutionary and a policy maker, you can't say 'If they want to kill themselves, if today they ask for drugs, because they want it, you will provide it'.

"It would be a macabre policy. A very insensitive, dehumanising policy You have a responsibility on the basis of cost and benefit. When the producers of Nevirapine are [saying] and still say it does not kill the virus, all you have is the risk."

When asked if this did not represent a chance of living, Mokaba said there was no chance. "They say very clearly it does not kill the virus. And secondly, we all know that the virus has never been isolated, it has never been seen. How then do you say this drug stops it, when you don't know its structure, how it moves, how it is transmitted."

Mokaba said he had slowly regained his own health after doctors failed to discover what was causing his illness. The whole experience, which resulted in rumours that he was dying of AIDS, was "very dehumanising", he said.

"I was ill with something in my lungs and there was no HIV The reason why that story emerged is that people were fighting with President Mbeki and they wanted to use a person who is regarded to be Mbeki's man to say: 'But his own lieutenants are dying of AIDS'."

Mokaba said he had not taken anti-retroviral drugs, but had seen the poor effects the drugs had on other people. While the document claims that both the late presidential spokesperson Parks Mankahlana and 12-year old AIDS activist Nkosi Johnson died as a result of the use of anti-retrovirals, Mokaba said he had no personal proof of this, but the information had been gathered from other ANC members.

Mokaba, a close friend of Mankahlana, said the dying man had called him to his deathbed a week before he passed away, but had not mentioned the cause of his illness.

Mokaba had never met Johnson, but had known people who had tried to help supply him with vitamins and had been frustrated in their attempts as he had been taking anti-retrovirals, he said.

A former freedom fighter and former leader of the ANC Youth League which backed the appointment of Thabo Mbeki as ANC deputy president before he stepped into the shoes of Nelson Mandela, Mokaba said he and the other comrades would not desert Mbeki in this new struggle. He was taking up this struggle to help the people for whom he went to war and was prepared to die for.

"They won their liberation and now they are fighting another war and they are being psychologically terrorised once more because people want to sell and make profits. And there is no benefit in those products. The only thing that can really happen is that once you touch the antiretrovirals you can go one way."

Mokaba said it was worth risking the vilification of the rest of the world, including scorn from those like the ANC's own Dr Karrim and Professor Makgoba.

"I was involved in writing this, but it is part of a collective, like any other of the ANC documents. I was not the sole author.

"The President was not involved at all. It is a compilation of scientific material that we have read, and we have presented an interpretation of that material to explain where we stand as a developing nation, as an African nation and what is now happening to us and what will happen in the future it we don't take issues up.

"We have seen colonisation, we have seen imperialism, we have seen apartheid... and all of them used against us as a people.

"One of the things that we are really talking about is that if liberation is going to be meaningful to us, then it has to return to us our humanity denied to us by all of these other systems before us.

"That is why, once we realised what is behind the whole story, once we realized what is behind the industry an industry that is based on no fact at all, then when we look at the story as it unfolds, where you see racism coming in and becoming the real problem. We decided we cannot allow this to happen."

Mokaba said the "we" were comrades within the ANC, who had been discussing and debating the issue.

The document was not a policy one, but a sharing of information, he said. The document was one of a series to be written and released to ANC structures, he said. The next would be focused on what was to be done about AIDS.

"What we will do for the sick people, what systems can be put in place for them. Once people have understood the political economy of this assumption we have adopted. Then comes the cost, future costs in terms of lives."

Mokaba said that Dr Karrim had deliberately not been consulted on this document before it was released to ANC members.

"This is a political document. It is based on science. It then extracts from the conclusions of science and looks at the developmental issues, also the political issues.

'Let me just point out too, that if you look at the health secretariat, we have no scientists, what you have are doctors who are doing applied science.'

'The pharmaceuticals are the people who would have research units, manned by scientists. It would not have made any sense. They can give us their observations, saying this is what we observe. The issue here is what is behind it all."