August 20, 2006

South Africa Defends AIDS Policies

JOHANNESBURG -- South Africa's health minister on Sunday defended her AIDS policies after a blistering attack by a top U.N. official, but newspapers said she had made the country a laughing stock and demanded her resignation.

Manto Tshabalala-Mismang blamed South Africa's poor media coverage at last week's global AIDS conference in Toronto on the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), whose activists led criticism of her government's policies.

"I think South Africa did very well," Tshabalala-Msimang told SABC radio.

"I think the TAC was just a disgrace, a disgrace not only to the (health) department but a disgrace to the whole country. But I think, as South Africa, we really demonstrated that we are doing pretty well."

TAC supporters were blamed for attacking South Africa's stand at the Toronto conference, which included a display of Tshabalala-Msimang's often-criticized prescription of olive oil, beetroot and garlic as a defense against AIDS.

The conference ended on Friday with a broadside delivered by the U.N. special envoy on AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, who derided South Africa's "lunatic" approach to an epidemic which infects an estimated one in nine of its 45 million people.

South African newspapers on Sunday joined the fray, describing the Toronto display as "a salad stand" and demanding President Thabo Mbeki -- who is also often accused of mishandling the AIDS crisis -- sack his controversial minister.

"Tshabalala-Mismang has become a comic figure who comes across as a clown, if her behavior in Toronto is anything to go by," the influential Sunday Times said in an editorial.

"For how long must South Africans suffer the embarrassment of a senior cabinet minister who does not appear to take her work seriously?"

South Africa's government has frequently been criticized for acting too slowly against AIDS and remaining reluctant to provide sufferers with anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, the only medication known to slow the progress of the disease.

The government did launch a public ARV program in 2003 and is now providing the drugs to about 175,000 people.

But activists say the drugs only reach a fraction of the people who need them and accuse Tshabalala-Msimang of creating deadly confusion by continuing to promote her home-grown approach to the disease.

City Press Sunday columnist Khathu Mamaila wrote that Tshabalala-Msimang's determination to promote natural foods such as beetroot and garlic instead of ARVs had "reduced South Africa to an international joke."

"Maybe she should be allowed to work for the department of agriculture," he said.