By Boyd Webb and Angela Quintal

Ridiculed at home and abroad, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang on Sunday night stood firm on her department's stance on HIV and Aids, and again shrugged off calls for her head.

Questioned yet again about South Africa's controversial "salad stand" at the International HIV and Aids conference in Toronto, she emphasised that on display along with garlic, beetroot, the African potato and samp, were anti-retroviral drugs used in the treatment of HIV and Aids.

The latter had been borrowed from members of the South African delegation who had received the anti-Aids drugs free of charge from the government.

Tshabalala-Msimang, who was being interviewed on SABC TV1, was asked about a study at the University of Stellenbosch which showed that the use of African potato might have an adverse affect on people on ARVs.

However, the health minister, who spoke in Zulu throughout, said the researchers should go back to the drawing board and investigate properly.

HIV positive people who used African potato had shown improvement and had said as much, the minister insisted.

Asked whether there should not be a scientific basis to this view, she replied: "Whose science?"

She also questioned why if a person said he or she was feeling better, this should be disputed, merely because it had not been proved scientifically.

"When a person says she or he is feeling better, I must say no, I don't think you are felling better. I must rather go and do science on you?" she asked.

Tshabalala-Msimang also had harsh words for United Nations special envoy for Aids in Africa, Steven Lewis, who last week launched a scathing attack on the South African government.

The health minister noted that Lewis was not a South African and advised that he should visit the country and see for himself before making the pronouncements he was making.

The ID last night joined the chorus in seeking Tshabalala-Msimang's head, after her visit to the international HIV and Aids conference in Canada during which South Africa was lambasted for its treatment policies.

"Almost every time the health minister opens her mouth, it does South Africa's reputation terrible damage," said ID leader Patricia de Lille.

The call was echoed by DA health spokesperson Gareth Morgan last night during a television debate on the topic with Tshabalala-Msimang.

"It is important that we have political champions - the minister is accountable for the failings of TB and HIV/Aids and I think it's time the minister stepped down," he said.

This followed a week during which the minister and the government were attacked locally and abroad for its HIV and Aids policy.

In Cape Town, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) staged a demonstration with banners proclaiming "Arrest Manto", saying that Tshabalala-Msimang should be investigated for causing preventable deaths because of her policies on Aids.

The protests were sparked after the death in a Durban prison of a prisoner with Aids.

The group called for a full judicial inquiry into the death, saying the government was to blame for not giving the prisoner anti-retroviral medicines (ARVs).

Taking its battle to the streets, the TAC demanded that President Thabo Mbeki explain why, in the face of the HIV/Aids crisis, he had not fired Tshabalala-Msimang.

Last night, De Lille also urged Mbeki to explain his continued support for one of his controversial ministers.

"There is more and more proof that her incapacity to efficiently deliver ARVs to the hundreds of thousands of our poor that have Aids is a direct result of her fringe beliefs when it comes to the virus.

"The longer the president remains silent, the louder the international condemnation of our country's Aids policies will become, with many wondering what Mbeki's own views on prevention and treatment of HIV/Aids are," said De Lille.

Tshabalala-Msimang and the country were widely criticised by the international community for its apparent unwillingness to roll out anti-retroviral drugs.

"South Africa is the unkindest cut of all," Lewis reportedly told the closing ceremony of the 16th International Aids Conference in Toronto.

"It is the only country in Africa, among all the countries I have traversed in the past five years, whose government is still obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment," said Lewis, who has complained that the government has effectively barred him from working in South Africa.

Speaking on SABC earlier on Sunday about her visit to Toronto, Tshabalala-Msimang said while she felt the country had done pretty well, the TAC had let the side down.

"Judging by the number of people who came to our exhibitions and the comments that we have recorded, I think South Africa did very well. I think the TAC was such a disgrace, a disgrace not only to the department but a disgrace to the whole country. But I think as South Africa we really demonstrated that we're doing pretty well in this regard," she told SABC news.

TAC activists stormed the South African display - known as the "salad stand" - confiscating the garlic, lemons and beets on display, a move the health ministry said was "intolerant".

  • A meeting is expected to be held on Monday with the Human Rights Commission and the Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons, where the TAC is expected to ask for an investigation into the recent Westville deaths, as well as 110 others prisoners who the organisation claims have died over the past year of Aids-related illnesses.