Archbishop vs. president in S. Africa AIDS debate

Associated Press
Published September 2, 2007

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - South Africa's president hailed his embattled health minister as a hero and blasted her critics as "wild animals" in a remarkable display of support that dismayed AIDS activists demanding the dismissal of the woman who advocated beets and garlic as remedies for the disease.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate often regarded as the moral conscience of the nation, weighed into the debate about South African AIDS policy by lambasting the health ministry. In a speech late Friday, he called the ministry inefficient and said it "has presided over the vast deterioration in health standards of our land."

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has been condemned at home and abroad for her unorthodox views on the AIDS virus, which has infected an estimated 5.4-million South Africans - the highest number for any country in the world.

At news conferences, she has made plain her mistrust of antiretroviral medicines, repeatedly espousing a diet heavy on garlic, beetroot, lemon and olive oil as more effective in treating HIV/AIDS. The comments have earned her ridicule and the nicknames "Dr. Beetroot" and "Dr. Garlic."

South Africa's stand at the international AIDS conference in Canada last year included garlic and other foodstuffs, prompting international scientists to write an unprecedented joint letter of protest to President Thabo Mbeki.

For years, Mbeki has been accused of downplaying the extent of the AIDS crisis, and he has steadfastly stood by his health minister.

But his weekly ANC Today online newsletter, published Friday, took his support to new heights. Mbeki said history would honor the minister as "one of the pioneer architects of a South African public health system constructed to ensure that we achieve the objective of health for all our people, and especially the poor."

Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang have known each other for 45 years and went into exile from the apartheid government together in 1962. The minister's husband is the treasurer of the African National Congress, the ruling party.