By John Matisonn

A defiant President Thabo Mbeki has attacked Aids activists following their victory in the Constitutional Court this week and continues to insist poverty is the main cause of the disease.

His outburst seems set to increase tensions in the African National Congress, in which many members are angry at the influence on Mbeki of Aids dissidents who deny the connection between HIV and Aids.

So great are the divisions in the ANC over Aids, it has now emerged that Mbeki failed to return calls from former president Nelson Mandela for two months before Mandela publicly differed with the government over Aids.

In an apparent refusal to budge on his Aids stance, Mbeki wrote on the ANC website this week: "We will not be intimidated, terrorised, bludgeoned, manipulated, stampeded, or in any other way forced to adopt policies and programmes inimical to the health of our people."

Mbeki and his supporters have vigorously defended the government's Aids position, despite the unanimous rejection in South Africa's highest court of the government's application to delay implementing a High Court order to give anti-Aids drug Nevirapine to pregnant mothers and their babies pending a full appeal to the Constitutional Court.

Mbeki came out guns blazing in his weekly online column in what seemed to be an attack on the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the Aids activist group that took the government to court to force it to increase the use of nevirapine for pregnant mothers.

"Some individuals engaged in politics and public health have achieved and seek to obtain public prominence on the basis of leading an extremely harmful and unacceptable campaign to deny our people all information and knowledge about the incidence of diseases of poverty in our country," Mbeki wrote.

"We are told we must accept the harm these persons cause, and their insult of an entire people, as the very essence of free democratic expression. Despite the propaganda offensive, the reality is that the predominant feature of illnesses that cause disease and death among the black people in our country is poverty."

TAC secretary Mark Heywood strongly criticised Mbeki's attack on Aids activists. "Branding genuine efforts to mobilise in response to the HIV epidemic as racist is demoralising," Heywood said.

"The fact is, if you take the question of mother-to-child transmission, it is poverty that puts African women at greater risk of HIV infection, puts them under pressure to have children, and keeps out access to proper health care.

"Having an HIV child creates new poverty in African women. Therefore to suggest that people who fight for medicines to interrupt it, are blind to all other diseases of poverty is a patent falsehood," he said.

Meanwhile, Sunday Argus has learnt that Mbeki failed to return Mandela's calls for two months before Mandela went public with his disagreement with government's Aids policy, Mandela told a meeting behind closed doors last month.

Several sources confirmed that Mandela gave this explanation when he addressed the ANC national executive committee to respond to critics who had attacked him the previous day for contradicting the official Aids policy in public.

Asked to comment on Mandela's statement, Mbeki's spokesperson, Bheki Khumalo, said, "We don't want to be part of what we consider malicious gossip".