Scientists ordered to stop using President's name

By Mondli Makhanya

Sunday Times (South Africa) 21 April 2002

President Thabo Mbeki has distanced the government from the AIDS dissidents from whom he has taken controversial advice over the past few years.

According to senior government officials, the Presidency has instructed the Health Ministry to write to the dissidents telling them to stop using Mbeki's name when signing their correspondence.

Several dissident members of Mbeki's AIDS Advisory Panel, among them Americans David Rasnick and Peter Duesburg, have taken to using this designation when writing documents and signing letters to newspapers. They have also been using Mbeki's name at international platforms when questioning the link between HIV and AIDS.

Now Mbeki has decided to cut informal contact with them and communicate with them only when the advisory panel meets.

Government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe confirmed that there had been "discussion" about getting the dissidents to stop misusing Mbeki's name. "We are telling them there are other members of the panel who hold the orthodox view so they cannot sign themselves as if they represent the view of the entire panel," he said.

And MP Peter Mokaba, who has emerged as the champion within the ANC of the dissident viewpoint, has also been instructed to desist from speaking out on AIDS.

Mbeki, who officials say has come round to accepting the negative impact that the pandemic is having on South African society and the country's image abroad, will refrain from expressing his personal views in public and will instead reiterate the official position when questioned on AIDS.

In a major departure from its controversial stance on AIDS this week, the government made the dramatic announcement that it was to put in place a plan for a universal roll-out of antiretroviral drugs for HIV-positive pregnant women from January next year. It also agreed to avail the drugs to rape survivors and people infected through needlestick injuries.

It is understood that the shift in approach was prompted by growing fears in Cabinet and ANC circles that the AIDS furore was fomenting negativity in the country and creating a gulf between the government and other sectors of society. Trade unions, anti-AIDS organisations and community organisations were beginning to see the government as an "enemy".

There was concern that there was a build-up of "mass mobilisation and hysteria" against the government, which was being seen as uncaring.

There was also pressure from the Social Development Ministry, whose funds were increasingly being diverted to AIDS relief work.

In a bid to assert its leadership in the fight against AIDS, the government will next month launch a massive awareness campaign with AIDS organisations; focus strongly on negotiating cheaper drugs with pharmaceutical companies; project an image of "sensitivity" towards those living with the disease and encourage their use of supplements; and launch a campaign to combat discrimination against those with HIV.

More money and expertise will be ploughed into the SA National AIDS Council. Mbeki will also soon appoint a deputy minister of health to focus solely on the issue of AIDS.

The head of the Department of Health's AIDS Directorate, Nono Simelela, said the end of the battle over antiretrovirals would enable officials to deal with practical issues in fighting the disease.

Secretary of the SA Communist Party Blade Nzimande - whose relationship with the ANC had soured over the AIDS issue - said he was glad the Cabinet was now "ignoring the political idiosyncrasies of the likes of Mokaba" and dissidents.

Despite this week's dramatic about-turn, government has not applied for donor funds to expand its AIDS drugs pilot study programme. It has asked for R500-million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria - which meets in New York next week to begin disbursing R10-billion to developing countries - but earmarked none of this for the pilot programme. Instead, it will fund TB drug research and psychological services for those living with HIV/AIDS.

Additional reporting by Ranjeni Munusamy and Bobby Jordan