By Angela Quintal
President Thabo Mbeki has made it clear that if he is to discuss HIV and Aids publicly, it will be on his terms and not on terms he considers engineered by the official opposition to gain publicity.
During question time in the National Assembly on Thursday, Mbeki resisted dogged attempts by Ryan Coetzee of the Democratic Alliance to draw him out on the subject.
The DA's renewed focus on HIV and Aids is being driven by Coetzee as the party's health spokesperson and his campaign was endorsed by the party's leadership in the past week. This week it led to a clash between the African National Congress and DA in a parliamentary committee meeting over whether cabinet members should "lead by example" by having public tests for HIV.
Mbeki emphasised that the silence he believed should be broken was that on racism in the country and he deflected all questions on HIV and Aids.
In a question arising from Mbeki's recent comments in ANC Today on crime statistics, Coetzee wanted to know if Mbeki had any information that rape was not pervasive and that it accounted in part for the spread of HIV in South Africa. He asked if the prevailing sexual practices and attitudes of some men towards women also did not account for the spread of the disease. Coetzee also tried to reopen the controversy over whether Mbeki believed HIV led to Aids.
Mbeki said he would not allow his attention to be diverted "to other issues simply because other members believe racism is a minor question".
Angry DA MPs interjected with cries of "Why can't you just say the word 'Aids'?" and "Aids denialist", while MPs in the government benches cheered Mbeki.
Despite interjections and supplementary questions, Mbeki did not depart from his prepared text.
An accusation from DA chief whip Douglas Gibson that the president was using racial epithets and "inflaming racial tension" was also ignored.
Lance Greyling from the Independent Democrats said he had lost 10 people close to him to Aids, but this, too, did not move Mbeki to expand on HIV and Aids.
"I have said that the government will continue with its programme on this matter of HIV and Aids and I have nothing more to add to it."
Mbeki accused Coetzee of ignoring the central issue of racism, which was the subject of his ANC Today letter. "Instead he wants me to engage in a televised debate that will help some people to perpetuate the very dangerous pretence that racism died with the holding of our first democratic elections."
Regardless of the "incantations about my playing the race card", Mbeki said he would not keep quiet while "others whose minds have been corrupted by the disease of racism, accuse us, the black people of South Africa as being, by virtue of our Africanness and skin colour, lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage - and rapist".
In his weekly letter, he said, he had cited two instances of people - Aids activist Charlene Smith and USAid's Kathleen Cravero - who he claimed had written that "our cultures, religion and social norms as Africans condition us to be rampant sexual beasts, unable to control our urges, unable to keep our legs crossed, unable to keep it in our pants".
"These were the rapists the Honourable Coetzee says that in large part account for the spread of HIV in the country."
Mbeki said he prayed that sooner rather than later, South Africans of all races "will dare to drag racism from the hushed conversations and murmurs and silences into the arena of public discussion".
Coetzee issued a statement saying Mbeki's reply was disgraceful.
"He refused to withdraw his racist and wholly unjustifiable attack on Cravero and Smith, preferring to rant on about the stereotypes of black people that he believes whites harbour. The question is whether a person who cannot lead the country on an issue as central and critical as HIV and Aids is the right person to lead the country at all."