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Associated Press
S Africa AIDS Activists Won't Join Govt At UN Conference

April 20, 2006
CAPE TOWN - A leading South African anti-AIDS campaigner Thursday rejected an invitation to join an official delegation to a U.N. conference, highlighting tension between activists and the government in one of the world's hardest hit countries.

Sipho Mthathi, general secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, said the Health Ministry didn't invite enough others to the U.N. General Assembly conference at the end of May. Treatment Action Campaign president Zackie Achmat and South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang had long been at odds. While Mthathi was invited to the U.N. meeting, Achmat was not.

"I do not feel that civil society has been adequately respected," Mthathi said.

The Health Ministry rejected the criticism, saying the government delegation included members of faith-based groups, traditional healers, youth organizations, business and unions and was fully representative of civil society.

The row over the General Assembly meeting erupted earlier this year. The Treatment Action Campaign said the official South African report was drafted without adequate input from activists and gave an overly favorable picture of the situation.

Up to 6 million South Africans are infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, the highest number anywhere in the world. Up to 1,000 people die of the disease each day and the national campaign to provide antiretroviral drugs to AIDS victims has often been characterized as too little, too late.

Treatment Action Campaign activists have accused Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang of being reluctant to promote anti-AIDS medicines and criticized her penchant for preaching the benefits of garlic and olive oil.

The Treatment Action Campaign is currently suing Tshabalala-Msimang for her refusal to stop the Matthias Rath Foundation from distributing its nutritional supplements to poor South Africans and promoting them as an alternative to antiretrovirals.

Groups such as Doctors Without Borders say Rath is undermining confidence in established treatment in poor townships around Cape Town. His methods also have been criticized by the World Health Organization, the U.N. Children's Fund, UNAIDS and researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health.

The treatment campaign last month accused Tshabalala-Msimang of refusing to accredit it and its affiliate, the AIDS Law Project, for the General Assembly meeting as non-governmental organizations.

The health ministry retorted this was because of the organizations' track record of using public platforms to criticize the government. It finally invited Mthathi - who is less vocal than Achmat - to join the official delegation.

"The entire process for selecting and then announcing the delegation has been unsatisfactory," said Mthathi in an open letter. "For TAC to now attend within this delegation lends respectability to a process that we feel has mostly been unilateral and non-transparent."