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S.African labor hits Mbeki on AIDS, economy

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) -- South Africa's biggest labor federation COSATU hit out on Monday at President Thabo Mbeki's economic policies and urged him to back down on his controversial stand on HIV/AIDS.

In a tough speech to the annual meeting of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, its leader Willie Madisha told Mbeki and delegates that the president's policies on privatization had failed and challenged him to acknowledge that the HIV virus causes AIDS.

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Madisha called for a review of reforms set out in the government's Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR), set out in 1996. The strategy -- praised in business circles -- focuses on boosting growth by lowering inflation, interest rates, the budget deficit and government spending.

"A major setback was the adopting after 1996 of conservative economic policies incorporated in the GEAR," he said.

Madisha also said COSATU wanted a rethink on the privatization of state enterprises, saying it limited services to the poor and threatened jobs.

"We are concerned by the proposed privatization of state utilities," Madisha said to loud applause from some 2,000 delegates.

Tough words on HIV/AIDS

But Madisha saved his harshest criticism for the government's AIDS policy. Madisha said Mbeki was wasting time on scientific speculation and hindering the fight against the disease.

"The current public debate on the causal link between HIV and AIDS is confusing. For COSATU, the link between HIV and AIDS is irrefutable and any other approach is unscientific and unfortunately likely to confuse people," Madisha said.

Mbeki sat stony-faced throughout Madisha's speech and he avoided the issue when he took to the podium to address the congress.

The 1.8 million-strong COSATU and the South African Communist Party are alliance partners with Mbeki's ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Mbeki's policies on HIV/AIDS, which afflicts 10 percent of South Africa's population of 43 million, have been steeped in controversy since he cited personal Internet research in remarks last year questioning the predominant view that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus.

In the clearest explanation of his position to date, Mbeki told Time Magazine last week that HIV could be a cause of AIDS, but that it was not the sole origin of the disease.

But Madisha said Mbeki should spend time finding urgent ways of providing cheap medicines to AIDS sufferers.

"We need to put the current controversies behind us and develop strategies to obtain cheap drugs," he said.

Mbeki urges allies not to be sidetracked

In his speech Mbeki sought to deflect COSATU's and the South African Communist Party's anger with the government's GEAR strategy, which aims to boost growth by curbing spending.

COSATU feels that GEAR is responsible for job losses and is becoming increasingly disgruntled with Mbeki's controversial stand on AIDS.

But Mbeki made only a passing reference to AIDS when he listed diseases afflicting his people. Instead he concentrated on slamming the "beneficiaries of our racist past" for the rift in the alliance, and urged it to "intensify the struggle against racism."

"They want us to become a house divided against itself, concentrating on a campaign to destroy one another," he said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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