News24, 04 December 2002, New Madiba drive against Aids

Johannesburg - Former President Nelson Mandela has launched a new drive to bring costly AIDS drugs to his country's poor, saying government inaction and public apathy were sentencing millions to death.

The campaign, organised jointly by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African Medical Association (SAMA), will provide free antiretroviral treatment to 9 000 public sector patients.

"It is a threat to everything and to everybody," Mandela said at Tuesday evening's launch. "It has destroyed our most valuable resource: our people."

Called Tshepang (Have Hope), the programme is a fresh challenge to the government, which has resisted efforts to provide antiretrovirals, arguing they are dangerously toxic and prohibitively expensive.

President Thabo Mbeki has also questioned the link between HIV and Aids - a view that has permeated discussions on the issue within the ruling ANC.

No senior government official attended Tuesday's launch. The Health Ministry said in a statement that while it welcomed "in principle" new treatment initiatives, it needed more information about the project before commenting on it.

South Africa has almost five million people infected with the HIV virus, the world's highest case load.

Sama chairperson Kgosi Letlape said South Africa, particularly its medical community, could no longer stand by as millions died from the disease.

"Treatment of patients is our responsibility. It is time we woke up," Letlape said on Wednesday.

Mandela's foundation has donated R10m for the project, which organisers say could cost as much as R80m to get fully up and running.

The vast majority of South Africa's Aids patients are too poor to afford antiretroviral drugs. Letlape said he knew demand would be immense. "We will be overwhelmed immediately."

But organisers said the programme could demonstrate to the government that it was feasible to distribute antiretrovirals.

The programme will seek to negotiate cheaper drug prices from big pharmaceutical firms.

Aids activist Zackie Achmat, who is refusing to take antiretroviral drugs for his own HIV infection until the drugs are made widely available, said the new programme could push both the government and drug companies to get serious about South Africa's Aids situation.